Should You Attend a Single-Sex College?

This fall, young people entering their senior year of high school will begin thinking seriously about which colleges they would like to attend after graduation. With thousands of post-secondary schools in the United States, narrowing down the pool is certainly no easy task. Each college has its own identity and personality, and each has benefits and drawbacks in terms of educational opportunities, sports, and social activities. With so many factors to consider, it can be easy to overlook one of the most basic questions about your future education: Would you prefer a same-sex college?

Same-sex colleges are institutions that cater exclusively to either males or females for all or most of their time with the school. If this is something that you’re considering for yourself, your pool of potential schools just got a great deal smaller. In the U.S., there less than fifty colleges that are exclusively female and four that are exclusively male. As the issue of same-sex education continues to be debated, these schools and models have been thrust into the spotlight, which has led to a considerable amount of conflicting facts and opinions flying around that can strongly influence your decision. Despite the attention being paid to the issue, however, opinions and anecdotes don’t always translate to truth, which can lead to an ill-informed understanding of how these schools operate and what they have to offer.

The origins of same-sex education

Despite being a modern hot-button issue, it probably comes as no surprise that single-sex education has deep roots in the history of American education. Prior to the 19th century, advanced education tended to be associated with fields of study and profession known as the domain of men. As a result, higher education, too, was the domain of men, while women were generally expected to occupy a domestic position in society. As the nation began to expand, however, women were increasingly called upon to educate a reasonable and civilized population of young Americans.

Despite this new opportunity for learning, allowing coeducation in the 19th century was considered unthinkable, thus the creation of single-sex colleges. Opening their doors in 1839, the Georgia Female College (now Wesleyan) was the first school established exclusively for women, inspiring a number of others that followed, including Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Vassar (which is now coeducational).

These early all-female colleges did indeed provide 19th century women with the skills required to participate in the shaping of American culture; however, they also contributed to the upheaval of gender roles and social structure. Higher education provided many women with an alternative to the under-valued and often tedious domesticity that they had been forced into by men, and became a driving force behind the nascent women’s rights movement of the mid-to-late 19th century and the trend grew as the nation entered into the 20th century.

Benefits of modern same-sex education

The reasons for early same-sex education were mostly the result of 19th century gender roles and social expectations that women were subservient to men—perspectives that have changed substantially over the last hundred years. Given that, they probably won’t help in deciding whether or not this is a good option for you. Despite being a century behind us, however, the cultural constructions that gave rise to the same-sex education model are still very visible in modern debates.

There are different reasons that motivate advocates of the same-sex option, but more often than not there is a strong emphasis on the differences in development and performance between boys and girls. Proponents argue that the single-sex model offers each sex to focus solely on education without the constant distraction of the opposite sex, which can be particularly taxing at the onset of puberty and last well into adulthood.

Similarly, some research suggests that women who participate in same-sex higher education are more likely to pursue advanced degrees, hold positions of leadership, and maintain confidence in their abilities. This is in part due to the levels of comfort that some women may feel in a single-sex environment, which might allow them to be more assertive in classroom discussion and take more academic risks.

Other common pros, according to the State Education Resource Center, include “[making] boys less competitive and more cooperative and collaborative … improves peer interaction … [and] provides positive same-gender role models … ”

While these are frequently-cited reasons for pursuing and developing a single-sex curriculum, research from UCLA suggests that, although there are clear differences in the physical and neurological development of males and females, “research has not made the case that gender variations trump other differences that should be addressed in schools.”

Opposition to same-sex education

While opponents of the same-sex option don’t dispute the developmental differences between boys and girls, one of the most common criticisms is that it doesn’t reflect the real world. According to Diane Halpern, former president of the APA, “school is preparation for adult life,” and denying young people the opportunity to engage with one another can have a negative effect on their ability to socialize and interact with each other.

Along those same lines, some say single-sex educational models have the potential to lead to gender ignorance of the opposite sex and can foster the belief that segregation and exclusion are acceptable under the right circumstances.

Is it right for you?

Based on the existing research, there is a lack of empirical evidence to suggest that single-sex education has overwhelmingly positive benefits that could not otherwise be achieved in a co-ed environment. The arguments in favor of the model tend to be based on personal beliefs and cultural constructions. Nevertheless, the single-sex option does present college students with a unique environment that can boost confidence, strengthen social bonds, and establish a healthy self-image. Additionally, the social opportunity of a single-sex institution may be appealing to some students.

Whether or not this is the right option for you is a personal choice that only you can determine. Both options have their pros and cons, some more serious than others, and they will all affect your college experience. What is important, however, is that before you make such a critical decision, you need to research your options, speak to admissions counselors, and go on campus tours. In addition to having the facts, these are the best way to ensure that you are making a well-informed decision about your future.

By David White