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Women's colleges are still vital

Colleges and UniversitiesNotre Dame of Maryland UniversityIBM

With the recent announcements that Wilson College in Pennsylvania and Pine Manor College in Massachusetts will join the lengthening list of formerly women-only institutions that are now co-educational — including Hood College and Goucher College here in Maryland — what hope is there for the single-sex colleges that remain? In a word: plenty.

Graduates of women's colleges are twice as likely as female graduates of co-ed institutions to earn a Ph.D., attend medical school, be involved in philanthropic activity, attain higher positions in their careers and earn higher incomes.

As an alumna and chair of the board of trustees of Notre Dame of Maryland University, which includes Maryland's only remaining undergraduate women's college, I see no cause to bemoan the future of single-sex education. Rather, I remain as confident as ever that there remains a fundamental place in American higher education for women's colleges, and not just for that handful of women's institutions with super-sized endowments like Smith and Mount Holyoke.

While the examples of Wilson and Pine Manor colleges cannot be ignored, they do not tell the complete story. Many women's colleges, in fact, are thriving in large part because they have thoughtfully and deliberately recommitted to preserving their distinctive status and have done so in ways that are innovative and imaginative. The path we have chosen at Notre Dame of Maryland University is not right for every remaining single-sex institution, but the choices we have made have enabled us to preserve the value of the single-gender status of our full-time undergraduate college.

Our strategy over the past three decades has been to expand our offerings in areas of Notre Dame's traditional strength — education, health care and leadership development — through graduate programs and a part-time undergraduate program that are open to all. While these programs are co-ed, they share common core values with our women's college.

Our school of education, for example, draws upon the heritage of our founding congregation, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and is the leading producer of new teachers among all Maryland independent colleges and universities. Our school of pharmacy, the first in the nation to be established on the campus of a women's college, emphasizes the needs of women, both as patients and as health care decision-makers for their families. Our first class of Pharm.D.s received their degrees in May, and the school has received its full accreditation by the national Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. Our school of nursing trains cohorts from the region's top hospitals to become compassionate providers of care. Our undergraduate and graduate business programs focus on developing a new generation of forward-looking and ethically minded corporate and nonprofit professionals.

Although all of our programs — with the notable exception of our undergraduate women's college — are co-ed, we are avowedly a women's institution, with women making up 80 percent of our total enrollment. Yes, we welcome male students; we welcome them in increasing numbers, and we appreciate the fact that they respect our focus on educating and developing women leaders — a focus that is embedded in our institutional DNA.

We will not waver in our belief in the value of single-sex education for young women because we know that women's colleges produce confident, capable leaders at disproportionate levels. Our solution may not be right for every women's college, but it is working very well for Notre Dame.

Patricia J. Mitchell, a retired IBM vice president, is an alumna and chair of the board of trustees of Notre Dame of Maryland University. Her email is pjm.mitchell@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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