Today I am visiting Chatham University (PA), a small school, formerly all-female for undergraduate education, that completed its first year as a coeducational institution. This has not been an uncommon transition for women’s colleges. Connecticut College, which I visited about three weeks ago, went through it in 1970. So has Goucher College in Maryland (1986) and Randolph College in Virginia (2011), among others I have also visited.

The reasons for women’s colleges to go coed were usually financial. The college could not attract enough students who brought in enough tuition dollars so that the school could remain all-female. The other option was to close or merge with another college, if that was academically or geographically possible. Vassar, as one example, tried to merge with Yale, then all-male. While students at both schools frequently visited each other–the campuses are an hour and a half apart–it was too difficult to have students who lived on one campus take classes at the other. Instead of being two schools, one all-male, one all-female, both went co-ed. Nine years ago, Rutgers University in New Brunswick repositioned Douglass College, formerly an all-female public liberal arts college, into a “residential college” when it reorganized itself from a system of liberal arts schools to better resemble a large state university. In effect this was a merger, though Douglass maintains its own alumni association.

The transition from a women’s college to a co-ed school is not without its challenges. Perhaps the hardest is how to include men within a community that was formerly all-female. Hood College (MD) as one example, began the transition through its graduate programs, where men were commuters who worked during the day and came to school in the evening. That works at the start. The college is located in Frederick, Maryland, a very nice place to live as well as work. Bryn Mawr, which remains all female for its undergraduate programs, also admits men to its graduate programs. Starting with graduate programs was probably easier. The graduate students did not require housing, which in turn has its own unique set of student services. Chatham has more graduate students than undergraduates.

But going with graduate students first is not a viable option for other women’s colleges that have to go co-ed. A women’s college that is in a more isolated location does not have the market size to attract enough adult students to its degree programs. That means accommodations in housing as well as new extracurricular activities, especially sports, that the college has not offered before. The most sensible sports to add were those where the college already had a women’s team. Men and women could use the same facilities. In some sports, including cross country, golf, tennis and track, they could even work with the same coaches, provided that the coaches got a raise.

However, I am not yet aware of a former women’s college that went co-ed that later recognized fraternities on its campus. The schools that I have visited had none. Nor do selective schools such as Vassar and Sarah Lawrence that transitioned to coeducation. In one sense that’s not such a bad thing. Fraternities are membership organizations where one must be chosen and invited to be a member. Some who rush are not. Women’s colleges tend to be more democratic. A women’s college that becomes a coed school is more likely to remain that way. The alumni who graduated from that college would not want to see that part of their campus culture disappear. Women’s colleges existed at the start to offer an education that had been closed to them at all-male colleges. Their leadership and faculty would not want to make men feel as it they would be “lesser citizens” in a campus community.

Two women’s colleges, Barnard and Bryn Mawr, are among the very best liberal arts colleges that I have visited. Both schools run programs that engage faculty and alumni to show that women can succeed in any field, including those that have been traditionally dominated by men. I have not seen a co-ed college that has developed better leadership development and alumni relations programs than Bryn Mawr, through Barnard does them on a smaller scale. Most relevant:a women’s college that transitions to include men can continue such programs or develop similar ones where male students can also participate. Those that run these programs well have a better chance at success than those that do not.

It also helps if the school has historically allowed students to take courses at other colleges as students who attend Agnes Scott, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Spelman are allowed to do. Chatham might be the best example for an all-female to co-ed school that does this well. It has cross-registration opportunities (one course per semester) with nine Pittsburgh-area colleges including Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and Pitt.

When I visited schools that had made the transition, the students I met had chosen the school as a matter of fit, at least for the academics or, in the case of Randolph College, generous scholarships.  I did meet a very small number of men who were drawn to an opportunity to be the first to represent their college in a men’s varsity sport. But the men that I have met on these campuses cannot be generalized in any way. They are just as diverse, person to person, as the men who attend similar colleges that were formerly all-male and became co-ed, or colleges that had always been coed.

I had to wonder if something was “lost” when these women’s colleges made the transition and admitted men to be among their residents. They certainly changed their history as well as their identity going forward. They also needed to find new ways to differentiate themselves so that they would not look like “just another college.” Chatham, as one example, added curricula in design and sustainability that one will not find at most other small colleges.  For those women’s colleges that went coed most recently, like Chatham, its too early to tell if admitting men has improved their finances. One can only hope that they succeed on their new journey.




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