The Seven Sisters Colleges and Which Schools They Are

Find out which colleges make up the famous Seven Sisters colleges and what makes them so unique.

The Seven Sisters Colleges and Which Schools They Are
Ryan Hoffman

The “Seven Sisters”, or often without quotes, the Seven Sister colleges, are colleges that are historically and currently very selective liberal arts colleges, geographically located in the American Northeast. The term Seven Sisters arose because these seven colleges are historically women's colleges. One has since its founding become a coed college. Another one of the Seven Sisters colleges has been absorbed into another university. 

But there's much more to learn about these highly selective schools. Read on to find out what are the Seven Sisters colleges and details about their history, tuition costs, admission rates, and more.

What Are the Seven Sisters Colleges?

The Seven Sisters colleges include the following schools of higher education:

  • Barnard College
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Smith College
  • Wellesley College
  • Vassar College
  • Radcliffe College 

The initial impetus for founding these colleges was to establish post-secondary schools that could provide women with the academic equivalent to the overwhelmingly and traditionally male Ivy League colleges. The trend in establishing colleges for women aimed to match the educational caliber of male colleges was a major part of the growing progressive feeling among middle-class Americans in the mid-to-late 1800s. As women pushed for the right to vote throughout the 1800s and up until June 1919, when the 19th amendment securing women’s right to vote was passed by congress, they also pushed for colleges and universities to educate women in the curricula that men were already doing at their male-dominated or male-exclusive schools.

When Were the Seven Sisters Colleges Founded?

As mentioned above, the critical historical era in which the Seven Sisters colleges were founded was largely the period during or after the Civil War, with the exception of Mount Holyoke College, which was founded before the war. Therefore, many of the Seven Sisters schools were founded in the late-1800s. In order of the year they were established, the Seven Sisters colleges were founded as follows:

Where Are the Seven Sisters Colleges Located?

The Seven Sisters colleges are located primarily in the Northeast. In all, the Seven Sisters colleges are split up between three states of the Northeast:

Massachusetts:

  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Radcliffe College 
  • Smith College
  • Wellesley College

New York:

  • Barnard College
  • Vassar College

Pennsylvania:

  • Bryn Mawr College

History of the Seven Sisters Colleges

Several of the Seven Sisters colleges have associations with other colleges and organizations. Many of these associations go back to their founding or some time afterward in their history. All Seven Sisters colleges, however, share the same origins as being pioneering institutions to educate women on the college level. Below is a breakdown of the histories of the Seven Sisters colleges in order of when they were founded.

Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke College can boast of being the oldest member of the Seven Sisters colleges. Mary Lyon, a chemist and educator, founded Mount Holyoke College in 1837, originally named Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was a leader of higher education for women throughout the 19th century; then, in 1893, its seminary curriculum was eliminated, and it was changed to Mount Holyoke College.

To this day, Mount Holyoke College is a competitive school to get into, with an undergraduate admission rate in fall 2021 of 52%, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The college’s 25th percentile scores for the SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and SAT Math sections are 660 and 640, respectively; this means only 25% of students scored at or below 660 and 640 on those SAT sections, while the national average score for SAT Evidence-Based Reading is 541 and SAT Math is 538, according to College Board.

Vassar College

The second oldest of the Seven Sisters colleges, Vassar College was founded by Matthew Vassar in 1861. Like the other Seven Sisters colleges, Vassar began as a female-only institution of higher education. However, in 1969, Vassar College made the move to go coed, though, according to the NCES, the undergraduate gender breakdown is still very much tilted toward women: 62% of students are female and 38% are male.

The admission rate at Vassar College is very selective. For undergraduate admissions for the fall 2021 academic year, only 20% of applicants were admitted. Another startling fact about Vassar’s academic record is that its 25th percentile scores for the SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and SAT Math sections are 710 and 710, respectively; only 25% of students at Vassar performed worse than those scores.

Wellesley College

Founded in 1870 by Henry and Pauline Durant, Wellesley College began as Wellesley Female Seminary. Wellesley College rapidly developed a reputation for strong academics and an energetic education community. Originally founded as a liberal arts college, Wellesley College eventually developed courses of study covering all major sciences in the 1890s. On through the 20th and 21st centuries, Wellesley College has remained one of the preeminent private not-for-profit colleges in the U.S.

According to the NCES, the Wellesley College acceptance rate is very low. For the undergraduate academic year beginning in fall 2021, only 16% of applicants to Wellesley were granted admittance. That’s more selective than both Vassar College and Mount Holyoke College.

Smith College

This Seven Sisters college owes its origins to the inherited fortune of New Englander Sophia Smith. She decided to use her inheritance as the endowment to found Smith College in 1871. Throughout its long history, Smith College has emphasized a robust defense of academic and intellectual freedom, as well as the relationships between college education and larger, external public issues. And, of course, Smith College has always put a premium on the rights and privileges of women.

Smith College to this day remains very selective with its admissions. For undergraduate applicants in fall 2021, Smith College’s acceptance rate was only 30%. What’s more, its students’ SAT and ACT scores are top notch.

Radcliffe College

Perhaps, the most well-known association is that of Radcliffe College with Harvard, considering Radcliffe was founded as "the Harvard Annex" in 1879. Radcliffe College is also famously the college that Helen Keller attended, as did writer and poet Gertrude Stein, and actress Stockard Channing, widely recognized for her role as Betty Rizzo in the 1977 movie “Grease.” Back in 1977, Radcliffe and Harvard integrated sexes. Radcliffe College, however, continued to own its campus, provide financial aid, award undergraduate prizes, and grant fellowship opportunities to Radcliffe College students. It was not until 1999 that Harvard University fully absorbed Radcliffe College. Since then, Radcliffe College has developed into a new entity, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Bryn Mawr College

The only one of the Seven Sisters colleges to be located in Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College was founded in 1885, heavily thanks to the efforts of Joseph W. Taylor and the college’s first president James Rhoads. Bryn Mawr College’s first dean and second president, M. Carey Thomas, was also instrumental in crafting the college, its curriculum, and academic rigor. Bryn Mawr College remains a notably selective school, with an admission rate of 39% for undergraduate applicants in the fall 2021 academic year. It also boasts a far better-than-average overall graduation rate of 87%, according to the NCES. Bryn Mawr College also ranks among the best colleges in Pennsylvania of 2022-2023.

Barnard College

Barnard College was founded in 1889 with the mission of establishing an institution of higher education that was the women’s equivalent of the academics offered by Columbia University in New York City. Indeed, in 1889, when it was founded, Barnard College became the first college in New York City to award degrees to women.

Barnard College is no joke when it comes to how selective it is with admissions. For undergraduate admissions in fall 2021, Barnard College’s acceptance rate was only 11% of more than 10,000 applicants, according to the NCES. Like with other Seven Sisters colleges, enrolling students’ SAT scores are excellent. Barnard College’s 25th percentile scores for the SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and SAT Math sections are 710 and 715, respectively; only 25% of students at Barnard College performed worse than those scores.

The Seven Sisters Colleges and Their Associates

As mentioned, many of the Seven Sisters colleges were founded with the aim of matching or associating with the all-male colleges that were dominant at the time in America. Many of these associations persist to this day.

For example, in Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke College and Smith College comprise part of the Five College Consortium, along with Amherst College, Hampshire College, and University of Massachusetts Amherst. Another Massachusetts Seven Sisters college, Wellesley College, boasts a very unique cross-registration and dual-degree programs with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has other affiliated programs with various post-secondary institutions.

Barnard College was founded explicitly to offer women the educational equivalent of attending Columbia University. In line with this, Barnard College acted as Columbia University’s women’s liberal arts undergraduate college. This lasted all the way until Columbia decided to go coeducational in 1983. Despite Columbia University now being coed, Barnard remains a women's undergraduate college affiliated with, yet legally separate from, Columbia University.

Though located in New York, and not Connecticut, Vassar College is historically associated with Yale University. Despite discussions of a potential merger between Vassar College and Yale University, Vassar in the end decided to become coeducational in 1969 and maintains its independence to this day. 

Bryn Mawr College, in addition to fellow highly selective Pennsylvania colleges — Haverford College and Swarthmore College — comprise the Tri-College Consortium. At one point in their history, a merger between Bryn Mawr and Haverford College was considered but ultimately dropped and Bryn Mawr College remains an independent, women’s college.

Tuition, Admissions, and Graduation Rates at Seven Sisters Colleges

Tuition and required fee data was compiled from individual college websites for the 2022-2023 academic year. Graduation and admission rates come from the NCES. Radcliffe College, since it was completely absorbed by Harvard, has an “N/A” for its admission rate and graduation rate. Seven Sisters colleges are listed in order of year founded:

College

Founding Year

2022-2023 Tuition and Required Fees

Admission Rate

Overall Graduation Rate

City

State

Mount Holyoke College

1837

$58,498

52%

85%

South Hadley

MA

Vassar College

1861

$64,800

20%

93%

Poughkeepsie

NY

Wellesley College

1870

$61,920

16%

92%

Wellesley

MA

Smith College

1871

$58,768

30%

91%

Northampton

MA

Radcliffe College 

1879

$57,261

N/A

N/A

Cambridge

MA

Bryn Mawr College

1885

$58,940

39%

87%

Bryn Mawr

PA

Barnard College

1889

$60,478

11%

93%

New York

NY

Not surprisingly, considering how selective the Seven Sisters colleges are and their strong academic records, the costs of tuition at them are fairly high. Vassar College, in fact, is one of the most expensive colleges in the U.S. 

The Bottom Line on the Seven Sisters Colleges

The Seven Sisters colleges began as institutions of higher education that could offer women an education comparable or equal to what men were learning at their all-male or male-dominated universities. Though the vast majority of colleges and universities in the U.S. are coeducational nowadays, most of the Seven Sisters colleges have maintained their all-female approach to higher education (Vassar College has since gone coed and Radcliffe College has been fully absorbed into Harvard). The education and opportunities offered by the Seven Sisters colleges remain top notch, which is why every year, so many high school students continue to apply to them. Although the Seven Sisters colleges, in general, are on the more expensive side, you can utilize BrokeScholar scholarships and grants for women to lighten the financial burden if you end up getting accepted and attending one of these schools.