Erica MacKinnon was about to log in to her virtual English literature class when she learned that her college—the school she had enrolled in, then dropped out of, then re-enrolled in 22 years later; the same school her grandmother had graduated from exactly a century ago—was closing for good.
The announcement, which came in an email opaquely titled “Mills Transition,” was as shocking to her as it was to the rest of the 700-person student body—along with the staff and faculty, who had heard of the closure only an hour earlier. But soon it would be splashed across national newspapers: Mills College, the 169-year-old women’s college in Oakland, California, would stop accepting students this fall and confer its final degrees in 2023.
“To be back at Mills—to have this overwhelming joy and sit in these classrooms and have professors lecture on Faulkner and Morrison—was so beautiful,” MacKinnon said. “And then to have this announcement [come] out of the blue was so heartbreaking and shocking. The anger was palpable.”
Mills students were not the only ones to receive a similar shock in recent months. In May, Judson College, the fifth-oldest women’s college in the country, announced it will shut its doors permanently this year. Converse College in South Carolina, while not closing completely, revealed it would become a fully co-ed institution.
At least five other private colleges were felled by the pandemic this year, their relatively small endowments no match for a public health crisis that slashed enrollment rates and all but eliminated room-and-board revenue. For women’s colleges, however, these closures were not a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, but the continuation of a decades-long trend that has seen the number of women-only institutions decline by nearly 85 percent in the last 60 years.
And at Mills in particular, it was the start of a war—one that would pit the administration against its students, faculty, and eventually, its own board of trustees.
MacKinnon enrolled in Mills in 1996, at the age of 18, due mainly to her family ties: Her grandmother had told her, from a young age, that Mills was the only place she was never told “no.” From her very first day there, she felt the same freedom her grandmother had experienced. Coming from her gruff and male-dominated hometown in Alaska, she said, “I just found a world where women’s ideas and their thoughts were welcomed, and I had never experienced that.”
Three years in, a family dispute forced MacKinnon to drop out of the college she loved. She promised her mentor at Mills that she would eventually return and finish her degree, but as the years progressed, she found herself drifting farther and farther from that vow. She tried online degree programs, and even enrolled briefly at USC, but nothing seemed to click the way Mills had.
Finally, last year, after establishing a successful career in visual communications and making a home in Detroit, she saw that her alma mater was offering remote classes during the pandemic. She decided to re-enroll.
“I can’t quite explain how it was—just this wave of understanding to be back in a Mills classroom again,” she said. “That first class back, it was like no time had passed.”
While, at age 43, MacKinnon is not necessarily your average college student, she is surprisingly representative of the women’s college population as a whole. Such institutions enroll nearly three times as many students ages 25 to 65 as their co-ed liberal arts counterparts; Mills itself is almost 20 percent resuming students. If the importance of this for women in particular wasn’t clear before, the past year made it glaringly so: Hundreds of thousands of women left the workforce during the pandemic to care for children and elderly relatives, and a disproportionate number of women scaled back their college course load or dropped out altogether.
While women still outnumber men in terms of college enrollment, few are offered the kind of flexibility and support that a non-traditional college like Mills provides.
“Mills understands that no life is perfectly measured out, and it has always made allowances for that,” MacKinnon said. “They know that sometimes you’re going to have kids in tow and sometimes you’re going to have to leave to take care of someone. It’s so ingrained in the life of women that it is just a part of how that school has grown and built itself.”
And these benefits aren’t limited to resuming students like MacKinnon. Women’s colleges, on average, enroll 13 percent more students of color and 11 percent more low-income students than similar co-ed schools. At Mills, the student body is 65 percent students of color, 58 percent LGBTQ students, and 44 percent first-generation students. More than half its students qualify for federally administered Pell Grants.
Decades of movies like Mona Lisa Smile, which feature wealthy white women frolicking on rarefied campuses, and a focus on graduates like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi—Wellesley College and Trinity College alums, respectively—have fueled a popular narrative of women’s colleges as “empowering white lady spaces,” joked Casey Near, a college counselor for CollegeWise. But Near, herself a graduate of a women’s college, said this stereotype overlooks the crucial role that many women’s colleges play in educating local, low-income populations that may never have gone to college in the first place.
Studies show that women’s colleges enroll students demographically similar to public universities, but achieve the same graduation rates as private liberal arts colleges. According to a study by the Women’s Colleges Coalition, women’s college graduates are more likely than graduates of comparable liberal arts and public colleges to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years or less, get a graduate degree, and be “completely satisfied” with the overall quality of their education.
But financially, the system doesn’t work quite as well. Women’s colleges face the same economic pressures as all small, liberal arts schools—growing competition, a shrinking population of 18- to 25-year-olds, and a move toward more “practical” degrees—but enroll a student body that is less financially stable and more likely to drop out if times get hard. Add to that their smaller endowments—thanks in part to the income gap between men and women graduates—and, according to Merrimack College Professor Susan Marine, “it turns out that that’s a really unstable model economically.”
The overall effect is that women’s colleges across America are steadily disappearing. Of the approximately 230 women’s colleges that existed in 1960, when most men’s schools started to go co-ed, only 116 survived into the 1980s. By the end of 2023, when Mills confers its final degrees, there will be only 35.
Mills, in many ways, exemplifies this trend. Since at least the 1970s, when the school began enrolling more commuter students and thus making less money off of room and board, it has been in and out of financial peril. In 2014, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the college’s rating to just above a junk bond; in 2015, Inside Higher Ed reported it had enrolled fewer than 20 percent of its enrolled applicants for the previous five years. In 2017, newly appointed President Elizabeth Hillman enacted a financial stabilization plan that she claimed would set the college on a path to financial security, but also resulted in the loss of two majors, four minors, and five full-time faculty.
Perhaps the most significant financial decision was the board’s 1990 announcement that the school would begin accepting male students in order to boost enrollment. The decision was met with outrage from students and faculty, who marched and blocked the entrances to almost every building on campus. After two weeks of student strikes, the board was forced to abandon its plans to admit men. “It was a major victory,” recalled Joyce Yee, who was a senior at the time.
Echoes of the 1990 strike rang out on March 17, the day Hillman announced Mills’ closure. Shortly after the email went out, students were invited to a virtual town hall where, student organizer Lila Goehring recalled, the dominant emotion was confusion. That Mills would stop admitting students in 2021 and quit conferring degrees in 2023 was clear, but the plan for what would come next—a non-degree-granting “institute” on campus that would “foster women’s leadership and student success,” and “advance gender and racial equity”—was nebulous at best. Almost instantly, students started pushing back.
Within hours, someone had launched a “Save Mills” Facebook group and started planning an on-campus rally. Ten days later, the resulting demonstration drew hundreds of participants both online and in-person, and spawned satellite rallies as far away as Nashville, Tennessee. The “Save Mills” Facebook group now has more than 2,000 members; a separate Slack workspace has more than 300 active volunteers. A second group, which is pushing for a merger with the state university system in order to stabilize the college’s finances, has several hundred more members. The independent Alumnae Association of Mills College sends out weekly emails on efforts to save the college and hosts regular town halls, one of which recently attracted 700 attendees.
“I think they thought that we would just quietly accept it, but that’s not happening,” Goehring said of the administration. She noted, with a hint of irony, that several student organizers had previously taken a Mills class titled “Organizing for Social Change.”
“They literally billed us for this,” she said. “I don’t know what they thought was gonna happen.”
The organizers are well aware of Mills’ financial struggles. But they are concerned that the board and president are not giving them the full picture. In early April, when Save Mills requested financial documentation, the administration balked, saying it does not make such information public. (In legal filings, the college says it has posted five years of audited financial statements on its website.)
Alexa Pagonas, vice president of the Alumni Association’s Board of Governors, said her group loaned the college $2 million in 2017, based largely on the president’s assurances that the school would stay open for at least 25 years. “We would not have made the loan if we had any clue the college was thinking of shuttering,” she said.
The students felt saddened by the closure notice, Goehring said, but also betrayed. They were given no advance warning, no chance to register their dissent or brainstorm alternatives. “It was no secret that Mills was struggling financially,” she said. “[But] this just came out of thin air.” (In legal filings, the college said it has “repeatedly communicated its financial difficulties to the Board and members of the larger Mills community over recent years.”)
“I feel like this decision has really been made behind closed doors,” Goehring added.
She and her fellow students would soon find out they weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
Mills isn’t the first women’s college that alumni have rallied to save, and it probably won’t be the last. In 1979, alumni at Wilson College successfully sued the board of trustees to prevent them from closing the school; the same maneuver worked more than 30 years later, when Sweet Briar’s board tried to shut it down.
But for every women’s college that has been saved, there are 20 more that haven’t. And at a certain point in the fight for any women’s college on life support, the vigilantes have to face the awkward question: Does anyone really want these schools anymore?
Certainly, many alumni and students at Mills do. (The thousands of protesters to Mills’ possible closure are evidence of that.) But more broadly, the evidence is less convincing. Some national studies show just 2 percent of female high school seniors would consider attending a women’s college. Even the Women’s Colleges Coalition, a collective of women’s college presidents dedicated to promoting the benefits of a single-sex education, admits that women’s enrollment is increasing faster at co-ed institutions than at their own.
According to Michele Ozumba, a former director of the Women’s Colleges Coaltion, the single-sex model worked in the 1960s and ’70s, when women were shut out of many elite institutions. But today, she said, “you’re competing against institutions that have greater capacity, or scholarships, or the kind of things your top graduates would be looking for.”
“In the constellation of a sector that has 3,000 institutions and you have one-tenth of 1 percent of them, the math just doesn’t support it,” she added.
Despite the dismal arithmetic, supporters of women’s colleges argue that that will remain relevant until women are no longer marginalized. Although women are now the majority of students on most college campuses, supporters like to point out that they make up just 31 percent of full-time faculty and 30 percent of college presidents. Our society is “still definitely controlled by patriarchal values, laws, and customs,” said Marine, the Merrimack professor, “and until that changes, yes, I would say we do need women's colleges.”
Janet Holmgren, a former director of the WCC and president of Mills from 1991 to 2011, says both supporters and detractors of women’s colleges have it wrong. They’re still looking at that same 2 percent of college seniors, she said, when they should be looking at women like MacKinnon—women who are “returning, resuming, transferring, and are interested in investing in themselves and have had some experience in the world.”
These women, Holmgren said, “are much more comfortable in a community of women that is diverse in terms of gender identification and sexual orientation, as well as socioeconomic background, and life experience, and race.”
And for them, she said, “I think this idea that women are not interested in women’s colleges has yet to be proven.”
On June 17, after three months of protest against Mills closure, President Hillman made another surprise announcement: Mills was in talks with Northeastern University, a research institution in downtown Boston, about becoming one of its 10 satellite campuses. If the deal went through, the school would keep its campus and remain a degree-granting institution—but would no longer be a single-sex college.
Students and alumni were not impressed. In a town hall hosted by the Save Mills College Coalition and the UC Mills Campaign, 46 percent of participants said they were against the acquisition proposal, and just 11 percent expressed support, according to Inside Higher Ed.
But the dissenters had a surprise in store for the college, too.
On June 7, in Alameda District Court, four members of the board of trustees filed suit against the college, claiming they had never consented to Mills’ closure in the first place. (Two later pulled out, citing the “aggressive tone and actions” surrounding the lawsuit.)
According to the suit, the vote on whether or not to shutter the school was packed into the “consent agenda” of the virtual March 4 board meeting—an agenda generally used for routine, run-of-the mill issues. Even the language contained within that agenda was vague and misleading, according to the board members, who say they left the meeting believing they had voted to authorize the development of a Mills Institute, “for further consideration by the Board at a later date.”
“Therefore, it came as a shock when, on March 17, 2021, the College (through a published message from Dr. Hillman) publicly announced, among other things, that the College would cease enrolling first year students after 2021, and would transition away from serving as a degree-granting institution,” the lawsuit states, adding later: “Plaintiffs have not even been asked to authorize such actions, nor to their knowledge have other members of the Board.”
Beyond the deception at the March 4 meeting, the board members allege, the college also misled the public about its finances. According to the suit, Mills has maintained an endowment of approximately $206 million since Hillman enacted the financial stabilization plan in 2017. The college’s auditors have also produced year-end financial statements stating that it will be able to perform on its upcoming financial obligations, the suit alleges, and have even found the school to have “actual, and predicted, positive financial positioning” for 2021 and 2022. (In court filings, Hillman claims the school’s estimated financial loss for 2020 was $6 million, and that its projected loss for the upcoming year was more than double that.)
Toward the end of the lawsuit, the trustees give voice to the same suspicion many alumni and students have been whispering for months: that the administration was set on closing or selling off the school and that the rushed announcement was simply a way to set it in stone.
“One can scarcely imagine a more efficient way to curb enrollment in a college than to announce its imminent closure just weeks before prospective, incoming students for Fall 2021 would have to decide whether to attend Mills in the Fall,” the suit states. Why would the college shoot itself in the foot in this way, the trustees ask, “if not to ensure that the announced plan would be a foregone conclusion?”
A superior court judge granted the plaintiffs’ application for a temporary restraining order last week, barring the college from entering any agreements with another institution until a hearing later this month. But he declined their request to have the college hand over dozens of documents on its financial status before that hearing.
In a statement, President Hillman dismissed the lawsuit as an “unfortunate side-show” engineered by the alumni association and its lawyers.
“The trustees, most of whom are alumnae, are an experienced and sophisticated group,” Hillman said. “They have gone through rigorous and diligent analysis in their decision-making, and will continue to do so going forward. As a group, they are confident that they have more than sufficient information to fulfill their duties.”
“More broadly,” she added, “it is deeply disappointing that the AAMC claims surprise and seeks to assign blame for financial challenges that the College, and smaller liberal arts institutions like it all across the nation, have been facing–and publicly addressing–for many years. At a time when the College needs to focus on the path forward, we sincerely hope the AAMC will stop its divisive efforts targeting individual trustees and officers of the College, and will instead devote its resources to partnering with us in creating a future of opportunity.”
There is a bittersweet irony to the fact that Mills students, separated for the last year and a half by the pandemic and a virtual course load, have finally found a chance to come together just as their school may be closing. Goehring, who graduated this spring, says she feels more supported entering the job market now—with a network of alumni backing her up—than she would have any other year. (At one point last semester, alumni on the Save Mills Coalition sent care packages to student organizers studying for finals; Goehring said hers contained “enough to open a small convenience store.”)
The recent graduate is actually close friends with MacKinnon—the kind of intergenerational friendship that Mills students say can only happen at schools like theirs. Goehring found out about the school’s closure from a professor shortly before the announcement email went out; MacKinnon was one of the first people she told.
MacKinnon described herself as “a mess” that day, sitting in her virtual classroom with tears streaming down her face. But she can still remember what her professor said to the students, when the rest of them received their announcement email.
“She said, ‘We are just this island of misfit toys where we found each other,’” MacKinnon recalled. “And I think there are so many students like that there, and there always have been … and they found a place at Mills.”
She added: “I don’t want my Mills experience to be the last one.”