Full Equity in Higher Education Remains Elusive

August 04, 2017
A student wearing a graduation gown and cap with the words "Nevertheless, she persisted"

AAUW student organization member Meghan Mausteller wears her graduation cap and gown.


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Women’s Equality Day, celebrated on August 26, marks the anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. However, many women remained disenfranchised after the amendment’s passage in 1920. So while this day is one to commemorate, it is also one to reflect on the shortcomings of the amendment and to remind ourselves of the work that remains to be done before full equality becomes a reality, particularly for women of color, low-income women, and women with disabilities. One battle we are still waging is for women in education.

AAUW’s earliest members as far back as 1881 encountered unspeakable discrimination and overcame tremendous obstacles in their pursuit of higher education. Popular theories at the time held that higher education was detrimental to women’s health: It was widely believed that if a woman attended college, she would become infertile.

Not coincidentally, these misconceptions abounded at around the same time that U.S. colleges finally started opening their doors to women. In response AAUW published its first research report, Health Statistics of Women College Graduates, in 1885. The study successfully refuted the notion that college was harmful to women’s health.

Female students in drawing class at Street Hall, Yale School of Fine Arts. Image by Yale University Library

Yale University admitted its first women students in 1869, to the Yale School of Fine Arts, shown here c. 1905.

In those days, even after colleges admitted women, they hardly had the same opportunities on campus as men. Women students had to contend with restrictions on their ability to access all available programs, majors, classes, and resources. There were often quotas on the number of women permitted to matriculate, and the women who did enroll were allowed only in certain classes and majors. Florence Bascom, the first woman admitted to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, was forced to sit behind a screen so as not to “disrupt” male students. Physician Dorothy Ferebee graduated at the top of her Tufts medical school class but was turned away from positions at white hospitals because she was black. Throughout AAUW’s history much of the organization’s work has focused on examining and remedying these inequalities so that women could obtain an education on par with men.

Title IX, which AAUW and other advocates for women worked hard to get passed, guarantees equal access to federally funded higher education programs and a safe educational environment free of discrimination regardless of gender. Women now outnumber men at most institutions and are receiving the majority of degrees at all levels: associate degrees since 1978, bachelor’s degrees since 1982, master’s degrees since 1987, and doctoral degrees since 2006.

Image showing the comparison between women's and men's student debt

But women still face challenges in college: sexual harassment and assault on campus; the large gender gap in engineering and computing fields; and disproportionate student loan debt, a burden that follows them when they leave college. AAUW’s 2017 report Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans details the extent to which women are more likely than men to take on student debt while in college and hold more debt by the time they finish,  black women holding the most student debt of any group at graduation. After college, the gender pay gap means that on average women take two years longer than men to repay their student loan debt.

AAUW estimates that due to disproportionate student loan burden and a longer debt repayment period, women currently hold almost two-thirds of student debt in the United States. Women paying off student debt are more likely than men to struggle to make ends meet, and over half of black women paying off student loans are having trouble making ends meet. In order to maintain higher education as a resource that does not burden women with debt, AAUW advocates for measures that will help all students avoid debt, including a commitment to affordable public higher education, improved support for low-income students, and resources to help students at risk of dropping out of college with debt and without a degree.

AAUW remains on the front line of the fight for women’s equal access to education, even as the struggles women face have changed from a system that forbids women from pursuing the same degrees as men to a system that disproportionately burdens women financially after college. More work remains to be done, and we’ll continue to push ahead until we see progress for all women.

This post was written by AAUW Archivist Suzanne Gould and AAUW Senior Researcher Kevin Miller.


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