When Ronald J. Volpe took charge of Hood College in June 2001, he walked into a mess: The Frederick school was dipping into its endowment to pay debts, enrollment had plummeted and many students and graduates openly wondered whether the century-old college would have to close.
Last week, as students began the new school year in a frenzy of buying books, catching up with friends and playing Frisbee, Hood appeared to have turned the corner. Students and administrators celebrated as the college set an enrollment record -- 2,125 students this year, compared with 1,607 in 2001 -- filling its on-campus housing as well as the school's once-depleted coffers.
The key to the turnaround? Boys.
Founded as a women's college in 1893, Hood let men enroll as commuter students in 1971 but became fully coeducational only in 2003, when it allowed men to live on the campus. The change came only after Volpe, an energetic former business professor from Ohio, went on a 60-city tour of the country, hoping to raise money and persuade skeptical graduates that he had no other option.
"It's very, very difficult to attract women to women's colleges," said David Diehl, the school's director of marketing and communications. Although Volpe had been told that donations from graduates would fall off and that it would take a decade to get 35 percent male enrollment, he took the risk.
This year, the freshman class of 242 students has 83 men -- 34 percent, a record. And according to Volpe, donations are higher than ever.
"We're excited, needless to say, about this," Volpe said in an interview. He hopes to see the school grow to between 2,200 and 2,300 students and has plans to build a townhouse-style project that will add 100 to 150 housing slots to the 620 on the 50-acre campus near downtown Frederick.
"The men are coming here for the same reason the women are coming," Volpe said, noting the school's small classes and traditional liberal arts education. But, he said, "these guys wanted to be part of something historic."
On the campus, the news that the college's enrollment was continuing to grow appeared to be well known. In the Whitaker Campus Center -- a food court, bookstore and hangout -- seniors Annabelle Peake and Melanie Cokonis chatted as they ate Mexican food.
"There are definitely a lot more people in the classes than there used to be," said Peake, a German major. "I think it's good. I think it's nice to see a lot of students on campus."
"Except for parking," interjected Kristina Eggleston, a junior sitting nearby.
Peake and Cokonis nodded.
What about the men?
"They need to be held to the same standards. If they can keep up -- " Cokonis said, then gave a thumbs-up.
Megan Overcash and Amber Robinson, juniors staffing a table in the dining hall for incoming students, agreed.
"Guys are fun to be friends with," Overcash said.
"They don't carry as much drama as girls," Robinson added.
Their friend Amanda Jimenez, a sophomore, said that while having men on campus is changing some traditions -- volleyball games going into the night are more common now -- the core of the Hood experience is the same. It is an atmosphere of civility marked by the "Hood hello," a campus custom in which students greet one another in passing, whether they know each other or not.
"It's about family here," Jimenez said. "I call this my second home."
Dennis Tressler, a junior who was among the first men to settle into the new coeducational campus -- he was drawn by the chance to found the men's basketball team -- said the 10-1 ratio of women to men when he arrived had certain advantages but was not all roses.
"It was not good because a lot of people didn't want us here," he said. Now, he said, "it's like a regular college."
A group of freshmen, two men and two women, hanging out inside the pergola at the center of the campus, seemed to be getting along well enough.
"I expected it to be a sea of women, but it wasn't as much as I thought," Wesley Horn said.