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Financing New Foundations for Women in Science

Wellesley College, with Morgan Stanley’s help, raised nearly $100 million through a municipal bond issue to help fund its new state-of-the-art science center for undergraduate women.

When it comes to illustrious alumnae, Wellesley can reel off plenty of prominent graduates, but the elite women’s college would like names such as Pamela Melroy, Persis Drell and Nergis Malvala to be as well-known as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Diane Sawyer.

We don’t have a set of assumptions about men being better at STEM than women.

For those who need the introductions, Melroy is a retired Air Force officer and former NASA astronaut who piloted the space shuttle Discover, Drell is one of the foremost leaders in the field of particle physics, and Malvala is an astrophysicist and member of the team that first detected gravitational waves from colliding black holes. Each has made indelible contributions to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

Wellesley, the premier women’s college established in the 19th century to provide women with a liberal arts undergraduate education on par with the then all-male Ivy League schools, recently recommitted to advancing its tradition of graduating such STEM leaders, by raising $96.5 million of a planned $215 million new state-of-the-art science center through the issue of municipals bonds, underwritten by Morgan Stanley.

“For higher-education institutions, such as Wellesley, the munibond market can be a practical and cost-effective way to raise capital,” says Eric Wild, Managing Director and Head of Morgan Stanley’s Higher Education Finance Group, adding: “Investors understand and trust such institutions, which also tend to carry higher credit ratings.”

More Women Studying STEM Fields

“It’s a sign of the times,” says Joy St. John, Dean of Admission and Student Financial Services at Wellesley. “Women see job growth in fields like computer science, and they want to take part in that.  We’ve seen a jump in applicants to our college by 17% each year for the last two, and within those increases, there’s been a rise in the number of women who are interested in studying STEM every year,” she says, adding: “I’ve heard anecdotally that’s also happening at many of our peer women’s colleges.”

But it’s more than that. “From speaking to our students, we’ve discovered that they appreciate studying STEM at a women’s college because they’re guaranteed that the faculty believe women can be scientists,” says Dean St. John, “and that’s not an assumption you can make at every institution.” Indeed, studies suggest that both male and female faculty and students at gender-mixed universities can often be unconsciously biased against women in STEM classes; yet, those biases aren’t as much a concern at women’s colleges.1

“We’ve seen a great effort to reduce the formal barriers to women in science in high schools—the Girls Who Code program is an example—but there continue to be informal barriers,” says Dean St. John. “At least in terms of gender, the women’s colleges have neutralized that element of study in science,” she says. “We don’t have a set of assumptions about men being better at STEM than women. Here our students can focus on learning, instead of focusing on proving to others, and to themselves, that they can do it.”

Short- and Long-Term Advantages

Plans for upgrading the College’s STEM facilities have been in the works for years. By creating spaces that can accommodate more active learning approaches, making STEM courses more visible and communal, while incorporating the latest technologies, Wellesley aims to further empower students and spark innovation among its faculty.2

For this sort of ambitious multiyear project, the munibond market can offer many advantages. Typically, colleges or universities begin by launching a campaign to raise funds from its alumnae and other donors, “but that can take some time, and the funds don’t come in all at once,” says Morgan Stanley’s Wild. Meanwhile, long-term munibond market interest rates remain relatively low—around 3 to 4%—with maturities of 30+ years. The combination of low rates and a long-horizon repayment for timely capital can be ideal for educational institutions like Wellesley that want to start immediately to achieve its goals for students.

For Wellesley, however, the investment in new STEM facilities is set to pay long-term dividends. While students who graduate from all-women colleges may later be exposed to gender biases, a rigorous undergraduate education unencumbered by common cultural stereotypes fosters lasting confidence.

“They do get to see gender bias when they go to grad school or in jobs, and then they tell us it never occurred to them that their professors or co-workers wouldn’t take them seriously,” says Dean. St John.  “The fact that they’ve gone to a women’s college bolsters them. They’ve already seen that the best in the class, acing all of the exams and the most innovative in the lab, is a woman.”