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The Review of Higher Education 23.3 (2000) 319-345
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What Five Institutions Are Doing Right
Lisa E. Wolf-Wendel
Some institutional traits greatly facilitate student success, traits so well known that a research consensus has emerged about them. For example, research suggests that students do better when they get one-on-one attention from faculty. Further, providing ample opportunities for extracurricular involvement in campus life helps students to achieve both socially and academically (Astin, 1992; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Kuh, Schuh, Whitt, & associates, 1991; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).
Much of this research looks at students broadly--not disaggregated by race and gender. The implicit assumption is that all students need basically the same types of institutional support to encourage their development and to enhance the likelihood of their achieving success. This is not necessarily a false assumption. However, it should be questioned, given the ample [End Page 319] research demonstrating that predominantly White coeducational institutions are less effective for women than special-focus colleges, such as women's colleges, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). There is considerable evidence, for example, that women students in women's colleges are more successful than those in coeducational colleges (Riordan, 1992; Smith, 1990; Smith, Wolf, & Morrison, 1995; Tidball, 1986; Wolf-Wendel, 1998). Such research led Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) to conclude that
women's colleges . . . have tended to enhance the educational attainment of undergraduate women. . . . The evidence tends to support those who claim that a women's college provides a uniquely supportive climate for women to experience themselves and other members of their gender in a wide range of intellectual and social leadership roles. (p. 383)
Further, a recent study compared the baccalaureate origins of men and women with doctorates and found an inverse relationship for doctoral productivity by gender. In other words, institutions with higher male doctoral productivity had lower female productivity (Tidball, Smith, Tidball, and Wolf-Wendel, 1998). The study concludes that while male students may receive sufficient material supports and encouragement from their undergraduate institutions, these advantages are not necessarily available to women at the same institution to the same degree. These findings further suggest that environments conducive to the success of men might be different from environments that enhance the success of women. My study here addresses the need for more research to determine the hallmarks of the "uniquely supportive climate for women" found at women's colleges and to study those coeducational institutions that demonstrate themselves to be "women-friendly."
A similar, though smaller body of literature, has found that attending a historically Black college or university offers students benefits not found at predominantly White institutions (Fleming, 1983; Pearson & Pearson, 1985; Roebuck & Murty, 1993; Wolf-Wendel, 1998). Such research led Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) to conclude:
Much evidence. . . suggests that Black students who attend predominantly White colleges and universities experience significantly greater levels of social isolation, alienation, personal dissatisfaction, and overt racism than their counterparts at historically Black institutions. . . . Given this evidence, one might hypothesize that attendance at historically Black colleges enhances the persistence and educational attainment of Black students, and indeed most evidence supports this hypothesis. (p. 462)
My study also responds to the need for more research about the supportive environments found at HBCUs. There is little research available on Hispanic-serving [End Page 320] colleges and universities.1 However, the two studies available show that they graduate higher proportions of Latinas who attain a measurable degree of post-baccalaureate success compared to predominantly White institutions (Solorzano, 1995; Wolf-Wendel, 1998). My study is unique in that it examines the environment found at one such institution to determine how it serves the needs of Latinas.
My study also extends the research on special-focus colleges by examining particular institutions that have demonstrated extraordinary success in granting undergraduate degrees to African American, White, and Latin women who have achieved a measurable degree of post-baccalaureate success. Specifically, this qualitative case study describes the various structural and normative features of these "successful" institutions that encourage the...