COLUMBIA — There are many reasons why Stephens College has defied the downward trend that has shuttered scores of women’s colleges in the last few decades: improved academic programs, new and better facilities and a stronger commitment to recruiting.
In the past three years, Stephens has increased its enrollment by almost half. More than 1,000 students were enrolled at the beginning of the fall semester, when Stephens President Wendy Libby officially opened the term in Lela Raney Wood Hall. “There were times when the college was floundering, and now that’s behind us,” she told the students, “Now there is a sense of security and sense of self that this institution has that permeates.”
Stephens still has a long way to go to reach its heyday in terms of enrollment. In 1947, over 2,300 women attended the college. But, since the late 1960s, Stephens suffered the same declining enrollment as other women’s colleges in the United States — most of which have since closed. There were 233 women’s colleges in 1960. By 2005, there were just 68.
According to the Women’s College Coalition, “the move to coeducation was motivated by politics and finances, not what is educationally and developmentally optimal for women.” The decline of women’s colleges is linked to the later phase of the civil rights movement, when the issue of equality turned from race to gender. Traditionally all-male colleges opted, or were forced, to open their doors to women. This, in addition to the tone of the women’s movement in the 1970, made women’s colleges seem outdated. As a result, many women’s colleges became coeducational or have closed.
Stephens confronted these realities just a few years ago, when the school was almost forced to close its doors. A January 2004 interim report on strategic planning stated that if Stephens continued on the path it was on, with decreasing enrollment and increasing deficits, it would have to close within three years.
The growing problems at the college prompted a five-year strategic plan, spearheaded by Libby, who came to Stephens in 2003. The plan included refining academic focus in the undergraduate and graduate programs, building a student-centered culture on the campus, supporting employees and building a consistent brand identity.
In order to help make the college more financially stable, Stephens did not renew the contracts of 15 faculty members and phased out six degree programs, including political science, environmental biology and Spanish.
The school added several summer programs and strengthened existing study areas, such as the equestrian program and the business department. In response to student demand, Stephens brought back its interior design program in 2005.
A digital film program was introduced at Stephens in 2004, and according to Amy Gipson, the school’s vice president of marketing and public relations, that program has strengthened some of Stephens’s connections with the community.
Though women’s colleges have become less popular in the past few decades, Women’s College Coalition Executive Director Susan Lennon explained that women’s colleges are vital options for young women to consider in their college search. “Women’s colleges are totally and unequivocally about female students,” said Lennon. “When looking for the right fit at a college, one thing to look for is leadership opportunities. At women’s colleges, it’s not just some leadership opportunities, it’s every opportunity.”
Stephens College junior Sofia Mery said that she believes enrollment has gone up because of improvements within the college. “We are constantly improving our school, whether physically or within different departments,” said Mery, “The fact that it is such a small school seems to be attracting a lot more people as well. It provides students with a much more hands-on experience and makes networking much easier and more helpful.”
Lennon attributes Stephens’s success in large part to Libby, whose leadership qualities, she said, are part of what helps women’s colleges thrive. “You have to have visionary leadership, the ability to take strategic risks, courage and will, and understanding about what the trends in higher education are,” Lennon said. “And like Wendy, you have to have a finger on the pulse of a rapidly changing world.”