Would Alma Have Gone to Barnard?: Columbia, Barnard, and the Place of Women’s Colleges in a Coed World

The daily dilemma is as follows: my lanyard says “Columbia,” but my ID says Barnard. Both are technically correct in presenting the dual nature of my affiliation, which in four years will net me a Columbia University diploma granting me a BA from it’s faculty at Barnard College. My friends from Barnard and Columbia get together once in a while to break bread at Ferris Booth dining hall at Columbia. When lounging with my laptop or reading the Odyssey or Homeric Hymns on the Low Steps, the under-twenty-something undergrads are virtually indistinguishable.

But all this begs the question: am I a Columbia University student, or a Barnard College student, or am I both?

Or, more existentially: am I really a student at a women’s college or am I really a student at a big university – or, again, am I both? And what does it mean to go to a women’s college in a world – and even a university – dominated by a coed environment?


Barnard College is traditionally the most competitive women’s college in the country and, starting in 1984, became a faculty of Columbia University as an undergraduate college, rather than just an affiliate in the manner that the other Seven Sisters traditionally held – and continue to hold – with the Ivy League. Given this, women who go to Barnard have the unique experience of belonging to both a women’s college and the larger university. And given this, Columbia has a distinction, as a university with its four undergraduate faculties, of having a strong majority of women.

I can’t pretend to know what it would be like to go to UMich or to Bryn Mawr, but I do, by the strangeness of Columbia’s undergraduate colleges, know what it’s like to be at a women’s college and a research university at the same time. With that dual insight, I can tell you this:

Socially, there is of course a difference. My dorm is all women, naturally, even though I interact with men every day. As a sidebar, this doesn’t mean that the bathrooms or other common areas are any cleaner than they are at Columbia – I’ve checked – so don’t assume that living with all women will equate to cleanliness. But Barnard is full of school spirit in a way that, at least as I understand it, women’s colleges are wont to be – there’s our Big Sub day and Midnight Breakfast, and at other Seven Sister schools, things like Mountain Day and Lantern Night, which puts you right in the line and legacy of so many other women. It’s a feature of sorts for liberal arts college to have traditions like this, and women’s colleges tend to go further by making the traditions focus on delight – for food, for friends, for your environment – that women’s colleges make even more unique.

Columbia has the good food, the swanky dorms, the gym and pool and gorgeous library – it definitely is reflective that Columbia has the money, and in the world of higher education, more money means nicer things. It’s the perks of the big coed university – there’s simply more people paying tuition and providing revenue, so everyone gets to have more tricked-out stuff.

Columbia also has the graduate schools swimming with 9000-level courses for the occasional brave and daring undergraduate, while Barnard, having no graduate schools, is full of research opportunities for undergrads. Barnard employs many female professors and adjuncts – a clear perk to a women’s college is definitely learning from other women! – while Columbia employs people like Amal Clooney to teach for a semester. If you’re going to talk about certain issues in the Homeric Hymns or The Epic of Gilgamesh that pertain to women, a women’s college is a safe environment for that – as it is with many issues – and this safety promotes learning for learning’s sake. If you want to rewrite software or became a young financier, then there are definite benefits to a big university with big resources for big dreams.

Barnard has bears. Columbia has lions. Cross us, and we’re all fierce.


Alma Mater, the famous statue at Columbia, known affectionately as “Alma”

But what’s the answer – there has to be an answer, right? The better college experience?

The truth is that I haven’t had to find out. I get to have both, and I don’t have to choose – I get to be a woman at a women’s college, constantly exploring what it means to be a woman in today’s world, challenging my thoughts about myself daily – and I also get to have research university resources at my fingertips. To me personally, this is the perfect compromise – but I never expected to be at two educational experiences at once. Columbia is most unique to me because it has a distinct women’s voice coming from Barnard – maybe roaring is a better word – and demanding that there is a place for the women’s college in the coed world. I couldn’t agree more.

(And, for what it’s worth, Alma Mater would secretly have been a Barnard Babe back before it was cool).

Photo Credit: Ainsley Bandrowski 2015


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