Chartered in 1836 as the first degree-granting women's college in the world, Wesleyan College is a private four-year liberal arts college for women located in Macon. Consistently named to the Princeton Review's Best 361 Colleges, as well as to U.S. News and World Report's annual listing of "America's Best Colleges," Wesleyan enjoys a reputation as one of the South's premier educational institutions for women. "Forever first for women's education—striving for excellence, grounded in faith, and engaged in service to the world" is the college's mission, anchored by four cornerstones: excellence in academics, an environment rich with opportunities for women, a foundation of faith and shared values, and service to the world community.
Wesleyan's Lane Center for Community Engagement and Service presents opportunities for students to share with the community what they are learning in the classroom. Before Wesleyan students enter the classroom they are introduced to the Lane Center philosophy of service-based leadership through the first-year Immersion Program, which includes touring Macon and participating in service projects with such partner agencies as Aunt Maggie's Kitchen Table, a community resource center and outreach program located in a local housing project. Aunt Maggie's, founded by Lane Center director Catherine Meeks, has been so successful that it garnered the first Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership Award for Campus-Community Collaboration in 2000. (The award is named for U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter.)
Although the seeds for a women's college in Georgia were planted in the 1820s, they did not come to fruition for another decade, when the role of women in American society became an important part of the antebellum social reform movement. Through their involvement in campaigns against slavery, alcohol, and substandard prisons, female activists began to consider themselves the equal of men and called for reforms that would allow them opportunities previously denied. Some male activists agreed, and as part of the drive for women's rights, reformers focused on the creation of colleges for women that would offer the same course work as men's colleges.
In 1835 several Macon businessmen met to discuss the opening of a women's college. On July 8 they held a town meeting and secured $9,000 for the school's construction. This group of men also possessed the religious zeal common to the reform movements of the time and sought to affiliate the new college with the Methodist Church. In January 1836 the Methodist Conference unanimously agreed to adopt the college, and on December 23 the state legislature issued a charter for the Georgia Female College.
From the beginning, the college's administrators planned to provide an education that equaled those offered at men's colleges. Unlike other women's institutions that taught high school–level course work and did not grant degrees, the Georgia Female College provided instruction in philosophy, history, and ancient and modern languages, among other subjects. Upon completing the course of instruction, a student received the "First Degree," the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. The school emphasized training in mathematics and the natural sciences, an offering unique in women's education at the time. A great deal of enthusiasm accompanied the college's opening in January 1839. By the end of the term, 168 students had enrolled, an impressive number at a time when many state-sponsored colleges in the South often had fewer than 200 students. The school graduated its first class in July 1840, which included students previously enrolled at Thomas Bog Slade's Clinton Female Seminary in Jones County.
Besides being the first degree-granting women's college, Wesleyan also witnessed several other "firsts." In 1851 six students founded the Adelphean Society. Later renamed Alpha Delta Pi, the group has the distinction of being the mother of the modern sorority system. Wesleyan also organized the world's first alumnae association in 1859 and established the first Phi Kappa Phi chapter at a Georgia liberal arts college in 1969. Women from Wesleyan include the first in Georgia to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree and the first to argue a case before the Supreme Court of Georgia.
In 1843 the Methodist Church assumed direct responsibility for the school, leading to its being renamed Wesleyan Female College in honor of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
Wesleyan remained in constant operation throughout the Civil War (1861-65), and by the end of the nineteenth century enrollment stood at approximately 250 students.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, Wesleyan underwent a sustained period of growth and change. In 1917 "Female" was dropped from the name, and the school has been known ever since as Wesleyan College. Two years later the school received accreditation from the organization now known as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an endorsement that Wesleyan still holds. In 1928 the College of Liberal Arts moved its location from the original structure near downtown Macon to its current campus in nearby suburban Rivoli. The School of Fine Arts followed in 1953. The master architecture and landscape plan of 1928 remain intact, resulting in the entire campus being named a National Register Historic District in 2004.
Wesleyan survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and benefited from the post–World War II (1941-45) economic boom of the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s it had an enrollment of more than 700 students. Like most women's colleges nationwide, Wesleyan's enrollment decreased drastically during the mid-1970s, due largely to the women's movement, whose adherents considered separate women's education to be antiquated. A recent revival in the popularity of women's colleges, combined with Wesleyan's tradition of academic excellence, has brought enrollment numbers back to around 650 students.
Wesleyan stands today as an important member of the nation's community of women's colleges. A student population representing thirty-one countries places the school in the nation's top ten liberal arts colleges for diversity and ensures a global community of learners and leaders. The school offers undergraduate degrees in thirty-five majors, including self-designed majors and interdisciplinary programs, as well as eight preprofessional programs, including seminary, engineering, medicine, and law. A $12.5 million science center will add to the college's offerings in the fall of 2007. Master of arts degrees in education and an accelerated Executive Master of Business Administration program enroll both men and women. Wesleyan also offers a dual-degree program in engineering with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama; and Mercer University in Macon.
As of 2005 the school employed fifty full-time faculty members, 95 percent of whom hold the terminal degree in their fields. Wesleyan students enjoy the personalized attention and support of faculty not possible at a larger institution—an eleven-to-one student-to-teacher ratio and an average class size of fewer than twenty students. A wide variety of internship opportunities locally and nationally are offered, with students encouraged to participate from their second semester onward. Wesleyan graduates enjoy an impressive 95 percent acceptance rate to medical or law school, while the acceptance rate for those applying to masters programs is nearly perfect.
Wesleyan is a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III, fielding intercollegiate teams in basketball, soccer, softball, tennis, and track, as well as a nationally award-winning Intercollegiate Horse Show Association equestrian team.
The school has several well-known alumnae, including May-ling Soong, wife of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek; Neva Jane Langley Fickling, Miss America 1953; playwright Sandra Deer; and Toni Jennings, the first woman lieutenant governor of Florida. In 1990 a group of Wesleyan alumnae and other prominent Georgians founded Georgia Women of Achievement, an organization dedicated to honoring the accomplishments of outstanding women in the state.