One of Hood College's first co-ed classes

(WOMENSENEWS)–More women than ever are going to college.

Female enrollment has steadily increased since 1970–swelling from just over 40 percent in the 1970s to 57 percent in 2002. Yet, nationally, women’s colleges are faced with a sobering statistic. Only 3 percent of college-bound students prefer single-sex schools.

That has left the country’s approximately 60 women’s colleges putting their futures under a widespread survival watch.

For some the solution has been to close or merge. But for many of the schools that are committed to independence and survival, the strategic question boils down to one of identity.

While the number of students who want to attend single-sex institutions is alarming for the colleges’ survivals, the statistics of professional achievements of women’s college graduates are overwhelmingly in support of such schools.

They are three times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics; they continue toward doctorates in male-dominated fields in disproportionately large numbers and develop higher levels of self-esteem than their co-educational peers.

The first woman to be named Secretary of State (Madeleine Albright), the first to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Emily Greene Balch), and the first female general of the U.S. army (Brigadier General Elizabeth P. Hoisington), among others, all were women’s college graduates.

Two of the “Seven Sisters” grouping of women’s colleges–Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass., and Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., are fully co-ed institutions. For all remaining single-sex schools, the decision is more urgent than ever: Should these schools continue competing for that coveted 3 percent of women who want an all-female campus? Or should they throw in the towel on single-sex education and build a men’s locker room in the gym?

Opposite Decisions

Two other schools–Hood College in Frederick, Md., and Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va.–show how schools under this same type of pressure have recently wound up making opposite decisions. While Hood just decided to begin enrolling men last fall, Sweet Briar has rededicated itself to being a school solely for women.

Hood made its decision after conducting an intensive study in 2003 after seeing inconsistent and low new student enrollment figures. Its 2001 entering class was a mere 112 students.

The administration was asked in 2002 by the board of trustees to evaluate the impact of admitting men for full-time, residential status. They evaluated internal data, spoke with presidents and administrative officials at former women’s colleges and universities, looked at current education data and conducted surveys of local high school juniors and seniors.

The study found that the three most important attributes of successful women’s colleges are steady enrollment, large endowments and an urban or semi-urban location near coeducational institutions. For Hood, not able to capitalize on those characteristics, there ultimately “weren’t a lot of options” other than going co-ed, according to Susan Hallenbeck, vice president of enrollment management at Hood.

Hood determined from the study and from its recruiting interactions that the college was very attractive to many students because it had everything they wanted, except men, Hallenbeck says. And though she believes there is a role for women’s colleges, she said it is a “different world” from 1960.

“Kids are thinking about movies and TV shows that show the college experience,” Hallenbeck said. And it’s a co-ed experience that includes their friends.

Hallenbeck said the transition required mainly logistical changes including marketing campaigns to increase name recognition, residential facilities and staff as well as wellness services.

Overall, she said, the transition has been relatively easy because it required no major curriculum changes. And although many students were upset by the decision, marked by crying when the announcement was made, they were an integral part of the transition, sitting on committees and evaluating changes that needed to be implemented. Since its decision, Hood has boosted its enrollment by a whopping 34 percent, with 22 percent of the 2004 incoming class being male.

In October, Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., followed Hood’s example and announced its decision to begin admitting men this fall. Despite attempts to increase enrollment through reducing tuition, adding new programs and implementing new marketing strategies, they failed to increase enrollment to the necessary 450 students they believed imperative to stay afloat.

Hallenbeck believes that the co-ed trend will continue as the remaining institutions see others move to this model. “Every time one college opts to go co-ed, the others ask, ‘Are we next?'” she said.

Sweet Briar Sticks With Women

Sweet Briar also examined the co-ed model in the spring of 2003. Not only did it decide to continue admitting only women, it decided to increase its enrollment target, going beyond its existing enrollment of 500 students to an active student body of at least 750.

The committee that was founded to examine Sweet Briar’s options also consulted with other schools that had both gone co-ed and stayed all-female. But they also went beyond those evaluations and hired an outside firm to look at student engagement studies, marketing and admissions, and reasons why women who applied to Sweet Briar chose not to enroll.

“Our decision was strongly researched and data driven,” said Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, president of Sweet Briar.

To meet its higher enrollment target, Sweet Briar has added to its undergraduate programs, especially in economics and business, and also has created co-educational graduate programs: Master of Arts in Teaching and Master of Education in Differentiated Curriculum and Instruction. Both programs began last fall. They have also changed their marketing strategy to show “liberal arts in action” and the way that a Sweet Briar education continues post-graduation.

“We wanted to marry a traditional liberal arts program with what happens after you leave Sweet Briar,” said Muhlenfeld.

The college has also added distinctive programs like a certificate in leadership that provides a combination of hands-on experience in leadership skills, training and academic coursework.

When exploring its survival options, Muhlenfeld said, Sweet Briar asked itself if single-sex education was still practical in a world open to women. Because of its commitment to the education of women in an environment that fosters their development, the board decided the answer was yes.

Diane Dalton, former president of Sweet Briar’s alumnae board, believes that these institutions offer viable solutions for many women because they are trying to weave through a very uncertain society with a variety of pressures from all aspects of their lives, especially career and family.

“Sweet Briar taught me to be confident and capable,” said Kelli Bergmann, who graduated in 2004 from Sweet Briar and served as alumna and president of the student government during the time of the decision. She also says that it helped her relate better with women and not feel threatened by them or their successes, a problem she sees throughout the corporate world.

“At a co-ed college, they tell you that you must work hard in order to be successful as a woman,” said Bergmann. “At a women’s college, they tell you that you will be successful because you are a woman.”

Sweet Briar’s application pool for the 2005 incoming class is the largest in the past 25 years.

As for whether Sweet Briar will be among those that opt to go co-ed in the coming year, Muhlenfeld doesn’t believe that it will be. “Sweet Briar is the women’s college of the 21st Century. Women’s colleges of the mid-20th Century needed to change and Sweet Briar is leading that,” she said.

Brooke Linville is a freelance writer in New York.

For more information:

Women’s College Coalition–
Women Students at Coeducational and Women’s Colleges: How Do Their Experiences Compare?