The year after Columbia College went coed in 1983, Barnard’s applicant numbers hit a then-record high. Despite fears—and former Columbia President Michael Sovern’s prediction—that Barnard would cease to be relevant once Columbia began accepting women, the opposite has happened.
At the time, then-Director of Admissions Christine Royer said that Barnard’s suddenly increasing appeal to applicants seemed to reside less in itself and more in its larger neighbor.
“I don’t think the women who apply to us do so primarily because we’re a women’s college,” she told Spectator.
But 34 years after Columbia College first began accepting women as undergraduates, Barnard has increased in popularity each year and has shored up its relationship with Columbia. Today, Barnard students receive Columbia degrees, take Columbia classes, and join Greek life organizations and other extracurriculars at Columbia.
Since 2004, Barnard’s admission rate has gone from 28 percent to 13.7 percent for 2018, while the yield rate—the percentage of students who accept offers of admission—has increased six percent over that same time period to 51 percent, making Barnard the most competitive women’s college in the country. Fellow Seven Sisters colleges Wellesley College and Smith admitted 22 percent and 32 percent of applicants into their classes in 2017, respectively.
This surge in popularity has come amid a changing definition of the role of a women’s college—Barnard made the decision to accept transgender women beginning with the class of 2020, making it the last of the Seven Sisters to do so.
Although the college still touts its connection to Columbia, it seems that Barnard’s reputation as a place for women to become leaders is what ensured the college’s survival when its future was uncertain.
For Olivia Land, BC ’21, the change in Barnard’s transgender admissions policy—and the changing understanding of the role of women’s colleges—is important to keeping the college relevant.
“As the female identity shifts and widens, the identity of women’s colleges has to do that from the most conscious and mindful place possible, obviously while grappling with the history we are dealing with [as an all-female institution],” she said.
Dean of the College Avis Hinkson, BC ’84, said that the difference for students now is a matter of choice. Although in the past, women could not be admitted to Columbia College or other elite schools, they now have the option to apply to either.
“At the point of filling out applications and being admitted and making a choice, [students] made a choice to attend Barnard, they made a choice to apply to Barnard and amongst those acceptances, they chose Barnard,” Hinkson said.
Anna Beshlian, BC ’20, can attest to this fact. A member of the women’s rowing team, she was given the option of committing as either a Barnard student or a Columbia student when being recruited. She chose Barnard, in part because of the structure of its liberal arts requirements.
Hinkson had been a part of the push to keep Barnard separate from Columbia, noting that at the time, the only model for a merger was Radcliffe College, which was absorbed by Harvard University as a graduate institute in 1963.
Another factor influencing Barnard’s popularity has been its long-held reputation as a school for underserved groups, with Hinkson noting the reflection of New York City’s immigrant populations in its student body and Barnard’s past as a largely commuter school.
Vice President for Enrollment Jennifer Fondiller said that in addition to fostering racial and ethnic diversity—44 percent of the class of 2021 identified as nonwhite, though only seven percent of the college identifies as African-American—the college plans to continue accepting students regardless of their socioeconomic background, echoing a commitment made by Barnard President Sian Beilock in her inaugural address.
“Obviously, we have really broadened to an international and national arena, so we’re seeing those groups from all over the country, and we want to continue the socioeconomic diversity,” Fondiller said. “[We] want it to be a place for any amazing young woman to come.”
However, students have expressed concerns that Barnard is presenting a curriculum that does not reflect its student population, pointing to the syllabi for classes like Legacy of the Mediterranean and Women and Culture consisting of a primarily white canon.
The decision to admit transgender women was one which Beshlian said fits into the college’s role as a place for underserved groups.
“Barnard really does try to cater to the fact that women and nonbinary and genderqueer folks do need a space,” she said. “There’s more attention that is assigned to developing leadership and confidence within Barnard students, because there are a lot of systems of oppression that affect Barnard students, and that kind of attention may not be the case with Columbia.”
As women’s colleges have begun to open their doors more to underserved identities, they have also become more attractive to applicants. The number of applications to 44 women’s colleges in the United States—as well as one from Canada—has increased 35 percent between 2004 and 2012.
However, in 2012, those 44 women’s colleges admitted an average of 58 percent of their applicants, with an average yield of 31 percent. By contrast, coeducational schools admitted an average of 63 percent of their applicants, while also having a yield of 31 percent, meaning women’s colleges have proven to be more selective.
Aimee Morris, a high school senior from Long Island who was accepted as an early decision applicant to the Barnard class of 2022, said that the college’s reputation for activism and access to female role models was what drew her more strongly to Barnard than Columbia.
“I think I’ve always connected more to women in my life, so it doesn’t feel to me like I would be doing anything different by being in a setting where there’s only women,” she said. “One of the things that has drawn me to [Barnard] the most is the selfish motive to garner the confidence to go off into the world.”
Programs like the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, which prepares women for leadership in industry, are the kinds of initiatives meant to help Barnard students learn the skills they need to be successful.
As of 2016, only 37 women’s colleges remain in the United States, with almost two hundred having closed or ceased to be women-only in the last 50 years. Some have merged with men-only institutions while others have invited men to enroll, and still others have closed entirely due to financial pressures and lack of enrollment.
Yet with Barnard’s small endowment growing slowly but steadily and a capital campaign set to bring in $400 million by the end of 2018, the college is in a better financial position to ensure that it remains operational. This is partly due to efforts by former Barnard President Debora Spar to increase Barnard’s national and global recognition, including the construction of the new Milstein Teaching and Learning Center.
With the number of women applying to college having expanded 37.6 percent over the last eight years and with eight percent of those women applying to women’s colleges in the United States, it seems that women’s colleges are as relevant as ever.
Fondiller—who, tasked each year with the role of building the incoming Barnard class, may have the greatest insight into what makes a Barnard student—said that she looks for inquisitive students who are ready to question what they’ve heard and back up what they’ve said.
“There’s a self-awareness,” she said. “They don’t have to know it all or know where they’re headed, but they are really thinking.”