Single-Sex Colleges

The history of institutions of higher education includes the evolution of single-sex colleges and universities. In colonial America, private colleges often blurred the lines between church and state, creating variety in the types of colleges and universities that existed at that time. The institutions that existed during the colonial era, and which evolved into today’s modern colleges and universities, had relationships with the state and were often publicly supported even though they had church affiliations. In light of legal issues surrounding their status, this entry examines contemporary legal questions involving single-sex institutions of higher learning.


The first generations of educated women in the United States were, with few exceptions, products of single-sex secondary and undergraduate colleges. The first all-female academies, founded in the early 1800s, reflected a commitment to traditional gender roles that reserved the public sphere for men. These schools later became an essential part of the 19th-century women’s movement, which incorporated ideas such as preparing women for work outside the home. At that time, sexual segregation was considered the norm.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a significant number of colleges and universities were single- sex institutions. For example, in 1910, out of the nation’s 1,083 colleges, 27% were exclusively for men, 15% were exclusively for women, and the remaining 58% were coeducational colleges. In the 1960s, the number of single-sex colleges in the United States began a precipitous decline that has continued into the current century. In the 1970s, a number of men’s colleges began accepting women. In 1970, there were 230 women’s colleges and 174 men’s colleges; as of 2000, only 63 women’s colleges remained. Between 1970 and 1980, 108 women’s colleges and 101 men’s colleges became coeducational, while another 46 women’s colleges and 27 men’s colleges closed. As of 1987, only 2% of full-time female students were enrolled in women-only colleges.

Single-Sex Colleges Today

At present, about 50 women’s colleges, all of which were established in the mid-19th century, still exist, although all but a handful of this total now include male students in their full-time populations on campus (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007). The remaining colleges that were founded for women include the famed Seven Sisters in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts: Barnard College (NY), Bryn Mawr College (PA), Mount Holyoke College (MA), Radcliffe College (MA), Smith College (MA), Vassar College (NY), and Wellesley College (MA). There are also two women’s colleges among Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and Bennett College for Women, in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Today, in the United States, women outnumber men among college graduates. Yet, only a little over 1% of all women who are awarded bachelor of arts degrees graduate from single-sex colleges. However, applications and numbers of students who choose to enroll in colleges for women have increased. In fact, the data indicate about 3% of female high school seniors consider attending one of the nation’s women’s colleges.
When students at single-sex colleges seek funding for their education, such funds are regulated by the Higher Education Act of 1965. The U.S. Department of Education interpreted this act as requiring officials at institutions wishing to participate in federal programs for student financial aid either to have or to be about to receive accreditation from nationally recognized accrediting bodies or to show that credits earned by their students are accepted, on transfer and enrollment, by at least three accredited institutions. The Department of Education has interpreted the construction of the statute as meaning that if a college is to participate in federal aid programs, students from that college actually have to have successfully transferred to and enrolled in at least three accredited institutions. The congressional intent of the statute was to broaden the accessibility of federal financial aid funds to include students attending nontraditional or specialized postsecondary institutions. The purpose of this provision was solely to ensure that unaccredited institutions be of acceptable academic quality if they are seeking eligibility to participate in student aid programs.
When considering whether to attend single-sex colleges, applicants often review historical data and writings addressing the benefit or detriment of attending such institutions. Needless to say, these data, and researchers who helped produce them, often reach conflicting and controversial points of view. To this end, some statistical data demonstrate that students from single-sex schools outperform peers from coeducational institutions. Other studies point to the neurological and chemical differences between men and women and assert that single-sex education can better take such biological differences into account. Without the presence of the opposite sex, some researchers think that students will be less distracted from their studies. In short, some researchers argue that all males and females receive and process information differently, hear and see differently, and develop at different paces, and therefore require different teaching styles. Proponents also assert classroom structures should be adopted to accommodate both sexes separately. These studies maintain that students who attend single-sex colleges are more successful in academic development, social skill development, and career preparation.
On the other hand, defenders of the coeducational system respond that separate learning facilities are inherently unequal, reinforce gender stereotypes, and perpetuate societal inequalities related to opportunities afforded males and females. These researchers state that without the presence of the opposite sex, students are denied a learning environment that is representative of real life. From this perspective, interaction only with peers of the same sex fosters ignorance and prejudice toward the other sex.
Even though officials at most of the colleges for women have decided to admit males in recent years, new and emerging issues continue to arise. For example, officials at the Seven Sisters and undoubtedly other institutions are grappling with an array of legal questions on topics such as dormitory rooms and perhaps athletic programs in light of the fact that a number of students are becoming transgendered while completing their studies.


Three key cases, two of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, have addressed the constitutionality of single-sex institutions. The first dispute, Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982), emerged when a male challenged his exclusion from a nursing program on the basis of his gender. According to the university’s admissions policy, men could audit courses but could not enroll in the nursing program for credit. Affirming earlier judgments in favor of the male applicant, the Supreme Court applied intermediate scrutiny under its Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause analysis in finding that state and university officials failed to demonstrate an exceedingly persuasive justification for the gender-based classification that was applied in the admissions program. More specifically, in applying intermediate scrutiny, the Court decided that university officials had to show, at a minimum, that the classification served an important governmental objective and that the discriminatory means employed were related to achieving those objectives. The Court was of the opinion that because state and university officials were unable to prove that the policy of denying men admission to its nursing school was justified according to the judicially created standard that the Court had enunciated, the policy was unconstitutional, because it violated the Establishment Clause.
United States v. Virginia (1996) dealt with whether the Virginia Military Institute, which employed an adversative form of military training for the 15% of its students who chose to enter the military as a career, could admit only males to its corps of cadets. After the Fourth Circuit entered a judgment that would have allowed commonwealth officials to create a parallel program for women at another public institution, the Supreme Court struck this plan down as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Again applying intermediate scrutiny, the Court thought that because Virginia’s stated rationale for the gender-based distinction, namely that the importance of same-sex education justified the complete exclusion of women, failed to meet constitutional standards, it failed to demonstrate that there was an exceedingly persuasive justification for excluding all women. In explaining why it refused to accept Virginia’s offer to create a program to provide military education for women at a separate facility, the Court reasoned that creating a new programs would not have remedied the constitutional violation, because this approach would not have offered the same level of prestige to both men and women.
A similar case arose at another military institution, the Citadel in South Carolina, when a female student successfully challenged its all-male admissions policy in Faulkner v. Jones (1995). Although the Fourth Circuit had approved the creation of a separate program for women, in light of the Supreme Court’s striking down the admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute in United States v. Virginia, the board at the Citadel voted to end the male-only admissions policy and to admit women to its corps of cadets.
In examining the law related to single-sex institutions of higher education, unless public officials can offer a separate and equal alternative for each sex, single-sex state-funded colleges and universities are likely to be forbidden on the grounds that they violate the Equal Protection Clause. Because state colleges and universities are publicly funded, then, admission policies must include both genders, unless programs offer separate but inherently equal state institutions to both male and female students.
Vivian Hopp Gordon

See also equal protection analysis; religious colleges and universities
Further Readings
Brune, A. (2007, April 8). When she graduates as he. The Boston Globe, p. 28. Retrieved May 22, 2009, from
Mael, F. E. (1998). Single-sex and coeducational schooling: Relationships to socioemotional and academic development. Review of Educational Research, 68(2), 101–129.
National Center for Educational Statistics. (2007). Table 227. Enrollment and degrees conferred in degreegranting women’s colleges, by selected characteristics and institution: Fall 2005 and 2005-06. Retrieved May 22, 2009, from
Rockler-Gladen, N. (2008). Advantages and disadvantages of single sex education. Retrieved May 22, 2009, from _in_the_us
Russo, C. J., & Scollay, S. J. (1993). All male statefunded military academies: Anachronism or necessary anomaly? Education Law Reporter, 82, 1073–1085.
Legal Citations
Faulkner v. Jones, 51 F.3d 440 (4th Cir. 1995), motion to stay denied, 66 F.3d 661 (4th Cir. 1995), cert. dismissed, 516 U.S. 910 (1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 938 (1995).
Higher Education Act, Pub. L. No. 89-329 (1965).
Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, 458 U.S. 718 (1982).
United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996).