The Coed Conundrum
Sunday, September 17, 2006
About a hundred students pitched tents and spread blankets under the magnolia trees of Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg this past week to protest the decision by the Board of Trustees to begin admitting men next fall -- and send a message across the country about education for women. They duct-taped signs to the elegant old brick: " 'Co-ed' is a four-letter word."
Every time another of the approximately 60 women's colleges admits men, one question resonates: Is single-sex education still relevant?
There were hundreds of women's colleges in the country during the 1960s, formed because women were excluded from places such as Harvard University and Dartmouth College, as well as to ensure that they had a challenging, supportive academic environment. But when men's schools began to admit women, the landscape changed dramatically, and many women's colleges closed or merged.
Change came slowly to Virginia, said Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, president of Sweet Briar College; its all-men's schools went coed later than most. "So the Southern women's colleges, particularly in Virginia, got a sort of 'bye' on this for 10 or 15 years," Muhlenfeld said. "Randolph-Macon Woman's College is probably the first of the major women's colleges in the South to make that move."
Randolph-Macon trustees told students that they needed to increase enrollment and stop spending from the endowment to stay financially viable; at a certain point, one steering committee member said, they realized that the school could not survive without a major change.
This past week, Sweet Briar, Hollins University in Roanoke, Mary Baldwin College in Staunton and Trinity University in the District all reaffirmed their commitment to being a women-only school.
Sweet Briar considered -- but rejected -- coeducation a couple of years ago.
A few women's colleges have such prestigious academics and healthy endowments that they are thriving.
Many have held on to traditions that have given them strong regional identities and a market niche, like some of the Virginia schools with their equestrian programs and distinctly Southern air.
And many have reinvented themselves. This year, Trinity University in the District, which once served mostly white, wealthy young women and has struggled with enrollment for many years, was surprised by a 54 percent spike in new students. This year's entering class, the largest since the 1960s, is mostly black, and more than 80 percent are the first in their families to go to college.
Trinity President Patricia A. McGuire said her school has invested to hold on to its single-sex mission, spending more on financial aid for much needier students, for example, and remediation. The school has helped pay for that by adding professional and part-time programs.
Since 2001, enrollment at women's schools has increased on average, driven particularly by part-time students, said Susan Lennon of the Women's College Coalition.