While women’s colleges are popularly seen as finishing schools for the wealthy, many schools are now making a conscious effort to serve poor women in their communities. According to an article by Katie Zezima in the New York Times:

A handful of small, private women’s colleges, including Alverno College in Milwaukee, the College of New Rochelle in New York and Trinity Washington University in Washington, are shifting to enrolling and graduating low-income minority students.

The change was made in the past two decades largely as a survival tactic for small colleges in dire straits. Despite that, the institutions and observers say the shift is, at its core, another take on the mission of a women’s college.

Historically these schools existed to provide education to women because they were denied admission to men’s colleges. But, as Wendy Kaminer explained in the Atlantic more than ten years ago:

Now that the Ivy League is coed, academically elite women’s colleges — Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke — are apt to lose the best-credentialed students to schools like Harvard, Brown, and Yale. In the 1970s, after men’s colleges and universities began accepting women, the SAT scores of Smith College applicants declined; they stabilized and rose slightly during the 1980s.

Once Yale let women in, what exactly was the point of a school like Wellesley, anyway? And just imagine what happened to a school like Chestnut Hill, Mass.’s Pine Manor College, which was never as selective as Wellesley. It had to change or die. So it changed. Unlike some women’s colleges, which dealt with declining enrollments by admitting men, Pine Manor decided to target different women, women who wouldn’t ordinary be able to attend college.

It’s not been an entirely easy shift. Teaching at a school where most everyone receives financial aid means the school doesn’t have much available cash and the school has deferred maintenance projects for years. But even alumni seem to support the change, mostly. As one alumna, a member of the school’s board of directors explains: “Everything has changed. The population has changed; the mission of the college has changed. There’s nothing about the college that’s the same except the things that matter.”[Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer