Does Brenau Need a Women’s College?

For 135 years, an all-female institution has been the heart and soul of what is now Brenau University. Indeed, for 93 years – up until the time trustees changed the institution’s charter to pave the way to multiple coeducational campuses, online degrees, and graduate programs – the Women’s College WAS Brenau. In today’s collection of campuses, “high-tech” delivery methods, and almost 3,000 students, more than 80 percent of Brenau students are female.

During the past 40 years, we have seen the number of U.S. women’s colleges drop from close to 400 to fewer than 50. In the past decade Brenau Women’s College survived – and experienced some of its greatest growth in both total enrollment and the variety of degree programs. After some drop-off in residential students during the recent economic downturn, we begin the 2013-14 academic year close to full capacity.

“But Dr. Schrader,” you ask, “since we hear you say that Brenau ‘loses money’ on every Women’s College student through tuition discounts and other enticements, so how can you justify keeping it around? With so many other educational opportunities for women, why buck the trend?”

The answer goes back to that “heart and soul” idea. Brenau is what it is today because of the Women’s College. The Women’s College taught this institution what it knows about delivery of higher education to a changing world. It informs what we do and how we do it.

However, let me address the underlying premise of your question. Since arriving on campus nine years ago, I have developed a great deal of perspective. Over the past 50 years, we have seen enormous gains in women’s rights and growth in social equality throughout the world, both trends led in large part by educated women – many of them products of single-gender institutions. Debora Spar, my presidential colleague at Barnard College, reports encouragingly that women today are entering the highest levels of leadership across the globe. Yet, with a cautionary tone she adds, “Women leaders have not yet achieved anything close to parity with men.”

Like many of you, I saw the 2010 data from the U.S. Census pointing out that for the first time in history more women than men were getting undergraduate and graduate degrees. I also saw the Time magazine article projecting that women would soon surpass men in hourly wages for entry-level jobs.

Good start.

However, I also heard President Obama in his State of the Union address urge Congress – the same body that has failed to pass the Violence Against Women act that has been around for two decades – address the equal-pay-for-women issue, the Paycheck Fairness Act. Just before that speech, Forbes magazine reported Bureau of Labor Statistics data that full-time employed women earned just 80.9 percent of the salaries paid to their male counterparts, down more than a full percentage point from 2011 when the number was more than 82 percent – the widest gap since 2005.

Those are national statistics. Here in the South, the culture I grew up in and the culture into which we send the vast majority of Brenau Women’s College graduates, women lag even farther behind the rest of the country in finding salary equality, places open to them at leadership tables, and even their own voices. I firmly believe that there is a cancerous flaw in any society that does not benefit from the open and equal participation of all of its members. Any community or country that does not provide equal paths for the social and commercial success of all its constituents assures its own social and economic failure. The women’s college helps women move forward.

In my nine years at Brenau, I have seen rural children come to this institution as girls and leave as Brenau Women – confident, self-aware, prepared for leadership, expecting nothing less than equality in all aspects of life. Brenau’s unique Women’s College environment – with leadership opportunities, academics calibrated to the way women learn and a nurturing support network – is what prepared them. They know they can lead because they have led and continue to lead the world in which we all live.

So, does Brenau need a Women’s College? Yes, and so does the world.


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