Goucher College, a prestigious 101-year-old women's college near Baltimore, announced yesterday that its trustees will consider a recommendation to make the school coeducational in the fall of 1987.
The proposal by a committee of Goucher trustees that the college begin to admit men to offset declining enrollments and to appeal to younger women surprised many supporters of single-sex colleges, who have long viewed Goucher as a leader in the fight to preserve women's colleges.
"The last college I thought would throw in the towel would be Goucher," said one women's college president who asked not to be named. "It's sad."
The Goucher trustees will vote on the recommendation in the spring, after alumni, faculty and students have had an opportunity to comment.
"As a result of the changing status of women in American society, the advantages of coeducation at the college level may now outweigh the special opportunities traditionally offered to women by a single-sex educational environment," said a report issued to the trustees.
Goucher President Rhoda M. Dorsey, one of the first women to head a liberal arts college and for years a champion of women's education, sent an eight-page letter to the members of the Goucher community that concluded: "The new world for women is a world of women, and men. For that world, a coeducational Goucher is the right institution."
Although a number of women's college presidents and officials yesterday reaffirmed their commitment to admitting only women, some women educators expressed concern that other women's colleges could follow Goucher's lead and become coeducational.
"This could be the second wave of women's colleges shifting," said a former president of an Eastern women's college who asked not to be named. "It is unfortunate they are thinking of giving in, but maybe they have to. It certainly is shocking."
In the early 1970s, after many men's colleges became coeducational, a number of women's colleges folded and others, such as Vassar, Skidmore, Bennington and Connecticut College for Women began to admit men. There are now 104 women's colleges in the nation, down from nearly 300 in the mid-1960s.
The colleges that remained all-women survived by expanding their pools of students to include older women and by changing their curricula to emphasize career preparation along with liberal arts. Many also changed their marketing and recruiting tactics, and most began to offer joint courses and exchanges with nearby coed schools.
While Goucher followed this route -- expanding course offerings and hiring a New York advertising firm to attract young students -- its enrollments continued to suffer, partly because of its proximity to an array of competing coed liberal arts colleges in the Mid-Atlantic region.
"We know that students come to Goucher because of its academic reputation and, frequently, despite its status as a women's college," Dorsey's letter said. "No amount of recruiting activity has been able to change this situation."
Dorsey's letter also said changing attitudes among young women have made it harder for the college to maintain enrollments. Typical teen-age women now have "negative feelings about single-sex education" and "believe there are few strong reasons to attend a women's college," Dorsey's letter said.
About 2 percent of college students attend women's colleges, Dorsey said.
The changing attitudes among younger women that were cited by Goucher's trustees were reflected in a research project conducted by the Women's College Coalition.
Many women's college presidents have said that, while the results of the survey are sobering, there still is a place for women's schools.
"Each one of us has adapted to the times in different ways," said Martha Church, president of Hood College in Frederick, Md. "We know we're not going to have an easy time of it in the coming years, but our most difficult days were back in the '70s."
Jane Evans, president of Mount Vernon College in the District, said her school also is committed to admitting only women.
"We feel very, very strongly that given where society is right now there is a valuable place for women's education. We have affirmed and reaffirmed our position."