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

For the tenth 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 ninth 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.

We also remind viewers that the admissions cycle for the Class of 2024 that began school in the fall of 2020 was far from normal. The global pandemic had a major impact on students’ plans for college, parents’ ability to pay for college, and the willingness of students to be on campus. For example, Mandy Hart, associate dean of admission at Amherst College in Massachusetts, told WIAReport that the college had about 50 admitted students who decided to take a “gap year” and delay their enrollment, whereas in a typical year they would have 10 students choose that option. This probably was a major factor for a nearly 19 percent drop in the number of women in the entering class at Amherst this year.

We also note we had a lower response rate to our survey than we have had in the past years. In all likelihood, this was due to the pandemic and many college employees working at home without access to traditional communication channels and institutional resources.

Of the 20 high-ranking liberal arts colleges for which we have data, women were a majority of the entering students at 16 schools. A year ago, 18 of the 21 colleges in our survey had a majority of women in their entering classes. Three years ago, women were a majority of the entering students at only 13 schools.

There are wide variations in the percentage of women in the first-year classes at these highly rated liberal arts institutions. Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, which was a women’s college until 1970, has an entering class that is 66 percent women. This is the highest percentage in our survey.

Women as a Percentage of First-Year Enrollments at High-Ranking Liberal Arts Colleges, 2020


% Women
Vassar College59439266.0
Oberlin College68041260.6
Macalester College54732759.8
Wesleyan University77646259.5
Hamilton College46826456.4
Davidson College52028154.0
Bucknell University98652853.5
Pomona College40021353.3
Middlebury College72638753.3
Colgate University77541153.0
Williams College55129253.0
Haverford College34318152.8
Bates College47925252.6
Bowdoin College46424252.2
Trinity College57829551.0
Amherst College43421950.5
Lafayette College60630350.0
Swarthmore College37318649.9
Washington & Lee University45922549.0
Harvey Mudd College2099846.9
Source: WIAReport Research Department

Among the leading liberal arts colleges in our survey, two years ago Oberlin College in Ohio had the highest percentage of women in its entering class. This year, Oberlin ranks second. Women make up 60.6 percent of all first-year students.

For five years in a row ending in 2017, 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 had data. Three years ago, women made up 62.4 percent of the entering students at Macalester. But this year, women are just 59.8 percent of the entering class, up from 56.8 percent a year ago. This puts Macalester College third in our rankings.

Women are 59.5 percent of the entering class at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. This is up from 55.4 percent a year ago. Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and Davidson College in North Carolina have entering classes in which women are at least 54 percent of the total enrollments

Colgate University, Pomona College, Bucknell University, Williams College, and Middlebury College all have first-year classes that are at least 53 percent women. Two years ago, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, was the only liberal arts college in our survey where men were a majority of the first-year students. This year, women make up nearly 53 percent of the entering class at Bates College.

Women make up only 46.9 percent of the entering students at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. This is the lowest level of any college in this year’s survey. The only other two leading liberal arts colleges where men make up a very slim majority of the first-year class are Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

For the past several years, just about an even number of liberal arts colleges showed a one-year increase – or a one-year decrease – in the number of women in their entering classes. But two years ago, 19 of the 21 liberal arts colleges in our survey showed an increase in the number of women in their entering classes. Only two showed a decline from the previous year. A year ago, nine liberal arts colleges showed a one-year increase in women students in their entering classes, and 12 showed a decline. This year nine showed an increase in the number of women in their entering classes and 11 showed a decline. Again, as mentioned earlier, a decline in the number of women students may simply be the result of an overall decline in the size of the entering class due to the pandemic.

The largest increase of 14.7 percent occurred at Macalester College. There are 327 women in this year’s entering class compared to 285 a year ago. The number of women in the entering class at Hamilton College is up by more than 10 percent this year. The other liberal arts colleges that showed at least a 5 percent increase in the number of women in their entering classes were Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wesleyan University.

One-Year Gainers and Losers in First-Year Enrollments of Women at High-Ranking Liberal Arts Colleges

Macalester College285327+14.7
Hamilton College239264+10.5
Trinity College272295+8.5
Wesleyan University433462+6.7
Bucknell University505528+4.6
Middlebury College377387+2.7
Davidson College276281+1.8
Oberlin College408412+0.9
Williams College300292-2.7
Washington & Lee University232225-3.0
Bowdoin College251242-3.6
Vassar College410392-4.4
Colgate University436411-5.7
Pomona College228213-6.6
Bates College270252-6.7
Lafayette College341303-11.1
Harvey Mudd College11198-11.7
Haverford College204181-11.3
Swarthmore College217186-14.3
Amherst College270219-18.9
Source: WIAReport Research Department

The leading liberal arts colleges in our survey that showed a double-digit decline in the number of women in their first-year class are Lafayette College, Harvey Mudd College, Swarthmore College, and Amherst College.

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 14 highly rated liberal arts colleges that supplied data, we find that women were accepted at a higher rate than men at seven institutions. Men were accepted at a higher rate than women at six liberal arts colleges. Macalester College had identical acceptance rates for men and women.

The greatest difference in favor of women was at Harvey Mudd College, which is heavily focused on STEM disciplines. At this highly rated college, 28.8 percent of women were accepted compared to 12.6 percent of men. A year ago, 23.8 percent of women were accepted for admission compared to only 9.2 percent of male applicants. Thus, the very large acceptance rate gap in favor of women at Harvey Mudd College grew from 14.6 percentage points to 16.2 percentage points this year.

Gender Differences in Acceptance Rates at High-Ranking Liberal Arts Colleges, 2020

Rate for MenRate for Women
Harvey Mudd College12.628.8+16.2
Bucknell University35.439.7+4.3
Colgate University25.429.2+3.8
Haverford College17.819.2+1.4
Washington & Lee University24.724.9+0.2
Amherst College11.811.9+0.1
Middlebury College25.125.2+0.1
Macalester College38.738.70.0
Bates College14.214.0-0.2
Hamilton College18.518.3-0.2
Davidson College20.619.5-1.1
Bowdoin College10.38.3-2.0
Pomona College10.17.6-2.5
Wesleyan University22.619.5-3.1
Source: WIAReport Research Department

At Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, the acceptance rate for women in 2019 was nearly 6 percentage points higher than it was for men. This year women were accepted at a rate 4.3 percentage points higher than men. Colgate University was the only other high-ranking liberal arts college in our survey that gave men an advantage of more than 3 percentage points.

Vassar College had an acceptance rate for men in 2019 of 30.1 percent. For women applicants, the acceptance rate was 20.7 percent. This was the biggest admissions advantage for men of any college in our survey last year. We did not receive data on acceptance rates from Vassar College this year.

At Wesleyan University in 2019, 19.6 percent of men were accepted for admission compared to 14.4 percent of women. This year the advantage for men dropped from 5.2 percentage points to 3.1 percentage points.

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