First-Year Women Students at the Nation’s Leading Liberal Arts Colleges

For the seventh year in a row, WIAReport has surveyed the nation’s highest-ranking co-educational liberal arts colleges to determine the percentage of women in this year’s entering classes. This year, for the sixth time, we also report on gender differences in acceptance rates at these schools and whether women have made gains in enrollments at these colleges compared to where they were a year ago.

We note here that several of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges are educational institutions for women. These include Smith College, Bryn Mawr College, Wellesley College, Scripps College, and Mount Holyoke College. Because only women are admitted to on-campus undergraduate programs at these highly regarded colleges, they were not included in this survey which focuses on gender differences in enrollments and acceptance rates.

Of the 19 high-ranking liberal arts colleges for which we have data, women were a majority of the entering students at 13 schools while there were more men than women in the entering classes at only six liberal arts schools. A year ago, women were a majority of the entering students at 14 schools.

Click to enlarge

There are wide variations in the percentage of women in the first-year classes at these highly rated liberal arts institutions. Five years ago, Oberlin College in Ohio had the highest percentage of women in its first-year class. Four years ago, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, had the highest percentage of women in its entering class. For the last four years in a row women made up the largest percentage of the entering class at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, among the liberal arts colleges for which we have data. This year, women make up 62.4 percent of the entering students at Macalester this year.

Colgate University, Oberlin College, and Vassar College all have entering classes that are at least 55 percent women.

Women make up only 44.3 percent of the entering students at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. This is the lowest level of any college in this year’s survey. Claremont McKenna College in California has the second lowest percentage of women in its entering class at 44.9 percent. The only other high-ranking liberal arts colleges in our survey where men are a majority of the entering class are Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Davidson College in Massachusetts, Bates College in Maine, and Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Four years ago there were more leading liberal arts colleges that showed a drop in women first-year students than those that posted a gain. For the next three years the opposite was true. Last year, eight showed an increase in women in their entering classes and nine showed a decline. This year eight liberal arts college had an increase in women and nine had a decline.

Click to enlarge

The largest increase of 19.3 percent occurred at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. A year ago, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, had an entering class that was 45.4 percent female. That was the lowest percentage of women at any of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges in our survey. This prestigious school is heavily oriented toward STEM disciplines where women have traditionally been underrepresented. This year, there are 117 women among the 225 first-year students. They make up 52.2 percent of the first-year class.

Macalester College was the only other leading liberal arts college that posted a double-digit percentage increase in first-year women students. A year ago, the number of women students at Macalester was down 16 percent.

In contrast, the number of entering women students at Swarthmore College is down 10 percent from a year ago. Williams College has 8.6 percent fewer women in its first-year class than was the case a year ago. At Bates College in Maine, the number of women in the entering class is down 5.7 percent.

It is well known that nationwide women outpace men in college enrollments, graduation rates, and degrees earned. Because of a large and growing gender gap in enrollments at many colleges and universities, it has become easier for men to gain admission to some colleges and universities. Now, just because men have a higher acceptance rate than women at a given institution does not necessarily mean that men have received an unfair admissions advantage. A particular college or university may simply have had an outstanding pool of male applicants in a given year.

We will simply present the data and let readers make their own conclusions. In most cases, differences in acceptance rates were small. Of the 18 highly rated liberal arts colleges that supplied data, we find that women were accepted at a higher rate than men at eight institutions. Men were accepted at a higher rate than women at 10 liberal arts colleges.

Click to enlarge

The greatest difference in favor of women was at Harvey Mudd College, which as stated is heavily focused on STEM disciplines. At this highly rated college, 27.6 percent of women were accepted for admission compared to only 10 percent of male applicants. Thus, there was a very large acceptance rate gap in favor of women of 17.6 percentage points. A year ago, 20 percent of women and 9.5 percent of men were accepted at Harvey Mudd College.

The next highest acceptance rate gap was at Lafayette College. There, women had an acceptance rate that was 7.4 percentage points higher than the acceptance rate for men. Lafayette, which did not accept women until 1971, has a large contingent of engineering students, a field where women are traditionally not well represented. At Macalester College, Grinnell College, Bucknell University, and Colgate University, the acceptance rate for women was at least 5 percentage points higher than it was for men.

Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, which was once a women’s college, had an acceptance rate for men in 2017 of 35.2 percent. For women applicants, the acceptance rate was 19.2 percent. At Bates College in Maine, 25 percent of male applicants were admitted but only 19.6 percent of women applicants. Wesleyan University was the only other high-ranking liberal arts college where the male acceptance rate was more than 3 percentage points higher than the rate for women.