How an Elite Women’s College Lost Its Base and Found Its Mission

Trinity Washington University Tackles an Enrollment Crisis

March 25, 2015
Julia Schmalz, multimedia producer.
Almost 30 years ago, one college faced an enrollment crisis. So it took a risk that has allowed it to stabilize and grow.

Almost 30 years ago, Trinity College, in Washington, D.C., faced a crisis familiar to many small institutions today: It lost the ability to attract the predominantly well-to-do women it had traditionally enrolled. So the Roman Catholic women’s college adopted a risky strategy. It changed its base, focusing instead on serving primarily African-American and Latina women who face financial disadvantages.

Under the 26-year tenure of President Patricia A. McGuire, the college has not only stabilized but grown. A new science-and-technology building is under construction, and the five schools that make up the institution — now rechristened as Trinity Washington University — have an enrollment of more than 2,200.

“It was one of the great risks I had to take, to accept the fact that even as we were thinking about big bold business moves, we also had to understand where our future markets were,” says Ms. McGuire.

Founded in 1897 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Trinity College was established for women who were denied an education at the neighboring Catholic University of America. “It was in reaction to discrimination against women, and we've always carried that with us since then,” says Ms. McGuire.

Today the institution has made social justice a key component of its mission. “By staying the course with their mission, staying with women — and here it would be particularly minority women — that’s a social-justice kind of outreach that not a lot of Catholic places have had the opportunity to do or have chosen to do,” says Tom Longin, a senior consultant to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

The Chronicle spent two weeks at Trinity observing the effects of the shift. This mini-documentary gives a brief history of Trinity College and offers a glimpse into a community now united around the goal of educating and empowering young women.


Julia Schmalz is a multimedia producer. She tells stories with photos, audio, and video. Follow her on Twitter @jschmalz09.