Women in Higher Education

Teacher standing in front of whiteboard

There’s much to celebrate in March, Women’s History Month. Today, women make up the majority of bachelor’s degree holders, and online education increases their opportunities to advance their career and boost their earning power. The role of women in higher education is a fascinating chapter to explore this Women’s History Month — from the centuries they were barred from pursuing a college degree to today’s digital age, when online education provides unlimited opportunities.

The history of women in higher education

Flashback to 1636, a few years after British settlers established their first permanent colonies along the eastern coast of North America and Harvard College began educating students — male students, that is. For more than 300 years, Harvard admitted only white men from prominent families. At last, the barricades against women earning a college degree came tumbling down in the 19th century, when two routes to higher education finally opened.

In 1837, Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, opened its doors to students of all races and both genders. Twenty-five years later, Mary Jane Patterson earned a B.A. degree in education, making history as the first Black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. She was a trailblazer for both her gender and race: By 1900, 1 in 3 Black professionals held a degree from Oberlin.

In 1836, Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, became the first women’s college in the world. Over the next 40 years, 50 women’s colleges opened their doors, including Barnard, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and Smith. Yet discrimination still persisted, even in women’s colleges, which treated higher education for women as a “dangerous experiment,” according to historian Helen Horowitz. “The dangers founders imagined focused on the fear that higher education might unhinge women,” she writes in an article. “These men worried that the rigors of Greek, Latin, mathematics, and life away from the familial circle might turn women away from traditional femininity. Female collegians might either imitate men or lose their innocence and virtue, both abominations to right-thinking Americans in the mid-19th century.”

Blazing trails in professions

A wave of the nation’s first female doctors, lawyers, and professors followed in the wake of colleges granting degrees to women.

Meet Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first female physician in the U.S. in 1849. Being a trailblazer in the medical profession wasn’t easy. She received 10 rejection letters and one suggestion to disguise herself as a man to gain admission, which she refused as a “moral crusade.”

One of the first Black women to attend college, Sarah Jane Woodson later became a professor at Wilberforce College, the first college founded by Black Americans in 1858.

After graduating from the Iowa Wesleyan College in 1866, Belle Mansfield studied law in her brother’s law office for two years before passing her bar examination. The all-male Henry County Bar Association granted her admission in 1869, amending Iowa state legislation to allow women the right to practice law.

Fast forward nearly a century later, and the class of 1982 included more women than men for the first time in U.S. history, and women have increased their share of bachelor’s degrees ever since. Four decades later, women now account for more than half (50.7%) of the college-educated labor force in the United States, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data.

Woman sitting in doctors office lobby

Empowerment and career growth

Like the trailblazing women throughout history, higher education is your key to empowerment and career growth. Through it, you gain access to better employment opportunities, boost your earning power, attain greater job security, and expand your professional versatility.

Differences in women’s earnings by educational level

Exactly how much does a college degree boost a woman’s earning power? Full-time workers in their twenties with bachelor’s degrees earn $22,000 more per year than their counterparts with a high school diploma and no degree, the Pew Research Center reports. Over the course of an entire career, a bachelor’s degree can reap up to $900,000 more than a high school diploma alone, according to the Social Security Administration.

Increased access through online programs

For women of all ages and stages of life, online programs increase opportunities to pursue higher education. Here are five big benefits:

  1. Better access to higher education opportunities. You won’t need to move to a different city or commute long hours to attend the program of your choice. You can stay where you are while advancing your education with an online degree.
  2. You can keep your job. It may be too costly to take time off work to attend school. Or you may want to improve your credentials and apply your learning on the job. With online programs, you don’t have to choose between school and work — you can do both.
  3. Convenience and flexibility. Whether you’re a full-time or part-time online student, the online learning experience allows for a much more flexible schedule that will help you strike a better school-life balance. And when you’re more in control of your schedule, time management goes more smoothly.
  4. Practical skills for real-world jobs. As an online student, you can learn those essential skills you need to climb the career ladder in your spare time — everything from coding and analytics to graphic design and computer animation.
  5. More time to do the things you love. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average daily commute time is 55.2 minutes. If you’re like most people, you’d prefer to avoid traffic or crowded public transportation. Saving those 55 minutes a day (or more) by doing your studies online will free up time you can spend working, connecting with loved ones, exercising, or simply having fun.
People at graduation in cap and gowns

National University’s here for you

As our students can attest, National University is breaking barriers in education for women. Along with our 100+ degrees, plus credential and certificate programs, we offer convenient 4- and 8-week courses designed for adult learners who balance work, family, and other life responsibilities. Here, three online learners share how earning a degree at NU transformed their lives.

“Being a working mom, I needed something that would allow my daily life to continue without sacrificing my responsibilities. I am so grateful to the University for providing a format that works for working adults. My master’s degree helped me stand out in my application to become a dean of students in my local school district. This new position has brought me so much joy in pursuing my passion for supporting our youth and community.” Leslie Anne Sepulveda, Bachelor of Arts, Organizational Leadership; Master of Arts, Human Behavior, Class of 2022

“Earning my degree will increase my confidence with my leadership abilities at my workplace. I spent several months evaluating MBA programs and decided on National University because of its emphasis on leadership. Additionally, I was attracted to the flexibility of the program as it is completely online. I work in excess of 40+ hours/week and travel a lot, so the flexibility of this program made a lot of sense for me.” Laura Schaefer, Master of Business Administration, Center for Creative Leadership

“Earning my degree allowed me to gain professional confidence, refine my skills in the classroom, and allowed me grow professionally. I was also able to learn so much about educating students while thinking deeply and pushing myself to be the best version of myself. The most unexpected thing that came from earning my degree was having my children set goals for college because they saw me do it. “ Toya Sonnier, Master of Science, Advanced Teaching Practices, Sanford College of Education, Class of 2019

Your organization can play a key role in empowering women through higher education

To find out how you can form a partnership with National University, contact us at [email protected].

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