Mills Hall at Mills College
Mills Hall was constructed in 1871 when Mills College moved from Benicia to Oakland. Credit: Curtis Cronn, via Creative Commons

Mills College, the private liberal arts women’s college located in Oakland since 1871, will no longer admit new students after this year and will confer its last degrees in 2023, the college’s president announced Wednesday.

The change was brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, decreasing enrollment, and budget deficits, president Elizabeth Hillman wrote in a letter to the community. 

“The Mills College Board of Trustees, after careful consideration, has decided that after fall 2021, Mills will no longer enroll new first-year undergraduate students. We will focus our resources on building degree pathways for our continuing students, and supporting the new first-year undergraduate, transfer, and graduate students who will join us this fall,” Hillman said. “Mills will most likely confer its final degrees in 2023, pending further consideration and action by the Board of Trustees.”

The 169-year-old college, situated near Interstate 580 and the Oakland Hills, will become the Mills Institute to further its mission of supporting women’s leadership and promoting critical thinking, and will seek input from Mills faculty, students, staff, and alumnae on the structure of the institute. School leaders are also in conversation with other academic institutions, and more details about programs offered by the Mills Institute will be released later. 

The college will help current students finish their degrees or provide assistance in transferring to another college. Mills currently enrolls 961 students, including 609 undergraduates and 352 graduate students. 

The school’s financial issues are not new. Facing budget deficits in 2017, Mills College leadership made the contentious decision to lay off tenured professors, instead of admitting men for undergraduate programs, a path that other women’s colleges have chosen.

Established as a women’s seminary in Benicia in 1852, there are more than 26,000 Mills alumnae, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who graduated in 1973 before attending UC Berkeley for a master’s degree.

“I am heartbroken and outraged by today’s announcement that Mills College will cease to be as we know it. Personally I owe a debt of gratitude to Mills College. Five decades ago, I was able to attend college and earn a degree as a young single mother on public assistance who often had to bring her sons to class – something that would have been impossible at many other colleges or universities,” Lee said in a statement. “It is where I met my mentor, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and it is where my passion for public service and politics began.”

Lee added that she had asked the Mills College board of trustees to search for other funding options and reconsider the decision to close the school. She emphasized the college’s commitment to diversity, equity, and supporting Black and Latino students in the college’s next steps.

Other well-known graduates include BART Director and civil rights advocate Lateefah Simon, Berkeley City Councilmember Lori Droste, musician Laurie Anderson, and historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz.

In 2014, Mills became the first women’s college in the United States to create an admissions policy for trans students, and serves women and nonbinary students in undergrad, while students of all genders are accepted to the school’s graduate programs. 

“Today’s news signals the end of an era in Mills College’s history,” Hillman said. “ The next chapter in Mills’ history will do likewise, serving Mills’ educational mission and sustaining its commitment to equity. We will need everyone’s help to navigate a successful transition and write that next chapter.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.