A Guide to Single-Sex Colleges

There are a number of single-sex colleges in the United States and around the world. Often, these schools offer a range of opportunities and benefits. Are you considering attending a single-sex college? Read on to learn more about the schools and their application processes.

The History of Single-Sex Colleges

Today, many colleges are coeducational, but it wasn’t always that way. Many well-known colleges were male-only until relatively recently. These include several of the Ivies—Princeton and Yale began admitting women in 1969, Brown in 1971, Harvard in 1977, and Columbia in 1983.

Oberlin was the first coeducational college in the United States. It began offering coed courses in 1833 and became fully coeducational in 1837. The University of Iowa was the first coeducational public or state university in the United States.

The United States also has housed a number of women’s-only colleges. Some of these remain single-sex, while others now admit men in addition to women. The Seven Sisters comprise an unofficial association of historically women’s colleges, each of which was paired with a historically men’s college. Barnard was paired with Columbia; Vassar with Yale; Mount Holyoke and Smith with Amherst; Wellesley with MIT and Harvard, Radcliffe with Harvard; and Bryn Mawr with Haverford, the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore. Today, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Barnard remain women’s-only, while Vassar began admitting men in 1969 and Radcliffe merged with Harvard in 1977.

Single-Sex Colleges Today

Most colleges that remain single-sex today are liberal arts schools. While there are about 39 women’s-only colleges operating in the United States, there are far fewer men’s-only colleges, with only three four-year independent men’s-only colleges, excluding religious vocational schools like yeshivas and seminaries, remaining. They include Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia; Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia; and Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Some single-sex schools have policies that allow students to enroll in activities or classes at mixed-sex schools, meaning that they are still able to meet and interact with students of other genders. For instance, students who attend Mount Holyoke or Smith may also enroll in courses at and receive credits from other colleges in the Five Colleges consortium, which also includes Hampshire, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Some single-sex colleges are still paired with other institutions, so while dorms are single-sex, classes may be co-ed. This is true of Barnard, which is still affiliated with Columbia.

Should You Consider Attending a Single-Sex College? 

Whether or not you should attend a single-sex college depends on your own preferences and interests. Many students enjoy the experience and feel a greater sense of community and unity than those at their coed counterparts, although many students who attend coed schools feel a great sense of community as well. Members of women’s-only institutions may appreciate the historical commitment to women’s and gender issues, which often continues to thrive on these campuses.

However, others simply may not be interested in attending a single-sex college.

If you are curious, it may be worth looking into single-sex schools. There are many enthusiastic advocates, but ultimately it really comes down to your own personal preference.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you attend a single-sex school, it does not mean you will never see members of other sexes. As we mentioned above, many of these schools have relationships with other colleges, and have opportunities for socializing, cross-registration, and extracurricular involvement at these colleges.

How does the college search and application process differ for a single-sex college?

Before you decide to attend a single-sex college, be sure to discuss your plan with current students or alums, or faculty and admissions officers. They can provide you with a perspective on what it is like to live and work on a single-sex campus day to day. (Of course, as we discuss on this guide to making the most of college fairs, it is a good idea to discuss the ins and outs of daily life with representatives from any type of college you are considering attending.)

In addition, you should research each college’s policy for cross-registration, interaction with other colleges, having visitors of other genders, and so on so you know exactly what to expect when you arrive on campuses. Many policies differ at various schools, so it is important to know all the facts before you commit to attending a particular school for four years.

The application process itself at a given single-sex college is generally comparable to that of other liberal arts colleges of similar caliber and selectivity. Some single-sex schools, such as Wellesley, are very selective, while others are less so. Given the nature of these schools, the applicant pools are typically significantly smaller than those of coed colleges, so it is certainly possible that some admissions officers may be able to offer each application more time and attention. However, the process itself tends to be similar to that of other schools in general.

Ultimately, attending a single-sex college is a personal preference that may appeal to some people more than others. This is just only of many factors you should consider and keep in mind when applying to and finally choosing a college to attend.

Having trouble narrowing down your college list? Unsure about the shape of your application? Fill out the form below and a personal advisor will reach out to you for a free consultation on how CollegeVine can help you with the college process.

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.