Growing up on Long Island with five brothers, Meaghan Repko never intended to go to a women's college. "Never!" she repeats, for emphasis.

She envisioned such schools as insular little worlds with students and professors beating the drum of grrl power and gender politics -- stifling, angry places, to be sure. Plus, she figured she'd kind of miss having guys around.

Then she visited Hood College. And now Repko, a 22-year-old senior there, can't say enough good things about the women dominated enclave she found on the red-brick campus in Frederick. "It's an environment where you can feel free to say what you want," she said. "The friendships and the bonds are so amazing -- it's like a sisterhood."

Students like Repko were the nagging paradox that confronted Hood officials as they decided Thursday to admit men to its residential program, starting next fall, for the first time in its 109-year history.

Like many women's colleges, Hood had seen its student population shrink substantially in the past 20 years; this year's enrollment of about 1,700 includes 873 graduate students. Recent surveys cited by the school found barely 3 percent of high school girls seriously interested in attending a women's college.

Most Hood students, in fact, say they came for strong academics or a good financial aid package -- if anything, in spite of the single-sex setting. Yet they were the ones who emerged as the fiercest defenders of the women-only tradition at Hood, and the ones most deeply mourning the change.

At the official announcement on campus Friday, students said, many classmates were in tears.

"It's going to change my whole college experience," said Mary Rottman, 19, a junior from Westminster, Md. "I think we're still in a state of shock."

Hood officials say the debate never questioned the value of a single-sex education. Rather, they said, Hood was grappling with longtime national trends that have prompted so many women's colleges to go coed, merge with other institutions or close their doors.

Women's colleges have struggled to find their place in the higher-education market since the late 1960s, when the vast majority of men's colleges began opening their doors to women.

Only three colleges remain all-male. All-female colleges endured longer by casting themselves as mainstays of tradition or protectors of feminism. Yet their numbers have shrunk dramatically: from nearly 300 in 1960 to fewer than 60 free-standing four-year institutions today.

Hood was able to buck the trend for so many years, college officials said, because of a healthy endowment and a strong regional reputation. Hood even made some delicate steps toward coeducation in the early 1970s, enrolling men as commuter students, though not as campus residents. Men now make up about 13 percent of the enrollment.

Still, from a high of 300 residential freshmen in the late 1970s, Hood enrolled only 110 new students last year -- barely one-third the number needed to maintain financial health, officials said. This fall's first-year class numbered 185. Officials said the gains were the product of an aggressive new admissions staff and are unlikely to be improved upon.

"It's increasingly difficult to communicate with young high school women about the benefits of a women's college," President Ronald J. Volpe said in an interview earlier this month.

Volpe said the women's colleges that have remained in good health either have close relationships with coed schools or large endowments. Wellesley College has more than $1 billion, and the $131 million endowment at Randolph-Macon Women's College is more than twice that at Hood.

Hood's faculty had long advocated a switch to coeducation, producing a study two years ago that made a strong case for admitting men. "I'm a proud product of a single-gender institution, but we have to live in the realities of today," said Anita Jose, an associate professor of management and director of the college's MBA program.

Faculty members were troubled by declining enrollment's effect on the school's finances, after a 5 percent pay cut several years ago and the dropping of two majors. Even the intimacy of Hood's small classes, some said, had become too much of a good thing.

"In some upper-level classes, you only have three or five students," said Hoda Zaki, head of the department of history and political science. "It doesn't generate the kind of discussion you want in the classroom."

In late August, college officials sent alumni a letter updating them on the coeducation discussions. The response, officials said, was largely supportive. And many students interviewed on campus earlier this month expressed indifference or ambivalence.

Indeed, while angry protests had erupted at other schools making such a transition, such as the Goucher College and the then all-male Washington and Lee University, no organized opposition developed at Hood.

After Friday's announcement, though, many students said they never had an opportunity to begin a protest because the administration made its decision far faster than they expected.

"We knew it was being discussed, but from what we understood, it would take place within two years, not next year," Repko said. "Faculty were asked [their opinion] and alumni were asked, but they never asked the students."

Some students and young alumnae fretted that with the arrival of men, Hood would lose the traditions that defined it for them as their alma mater -- the beanie hats that juniors make their "little sister" freshmen wear on campus during the first weeks of school, the chance to wear pajamas to class.

"When you add men to the picture, it changes the aura," said Jaime Kowzun, 24, a 2000 graduate from Columbia who choked back sobs as she spoke. "What man is going to wear a Hood College ring on his pinkie finger? When I look at my ring, it takes me back to those four years."

Others, though, said they are optimistic that the school's traditions will find room to grow among the new male students. "Longevity requires a certain acquiescence to what's going on in the world," said Emily Johnson, 21, president of the senior class.

She sighed as she described the old Hood as "a slumber party . . . the best of summer camp." Still, "I don't think we'll ever lose touch with these traditions," she said. "The caretakers are far too vigilant."

Freshman Melissa Hall, walking through the quad at Hood College in Frederick, says she opposes the school's decision to admit men as full-time students.