The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox

Choose from our newsletters

Twenty-five years ago, when dwindling enrollment at Wilson College in Pennsylvania threatened to close its doors, a swell of opposition by staff and students stopped it.

This year, the college will turn to its only other option — admitting men.

Like other women’s colleges, Wilson says it can no longer afford to serve only half the population. And while some alumnae are fighting the change, there are already men on the Wilson campus, and more are scheduled to arrive this fall.

Enrollment at Wilson College, a women’s school in Pennsylvania, has been stagnant for 30 years according to spokesman Brian Speer. The school’s controversial last chance plan for survival includes admitting male students to the undergraduate program. (Photos: Wilson College Communications)

More and more women’s colleges like Wilson are going coed. While overall college enrollment has gone up by about 32 percent since 2000, enrollment at exclusively women’s colleges has fallen during that time by 29 percent.

There were as many as 200 women’s colleges in 1960, according to the National Institute on Postsecondary Education. Today, that number hovers around 44 as schools facing sluggish enrollment are forced to find ways to survive — which increasingly means admitting men.

In the last two years, at least three other women’s colleges have gone coed, or announced that they will. The first male students at William Peace University in Raleigh matriculated in 2012. Georgian Court University in New Jersey went coed last year. And Chatham University in Pittsburgh will admit men starting next year.

At Wilson, undergraduate enrollment has been chronically low for 40 years according to spokesman Brian Speer. At its peak, the college enrolled 732 students, but the number hasn’t risen above 338 since 1980. Last year, just under 600 applicants were offered admission, but only 100 showed up. That prompted the approval by the board of trustees of a plan proposed by President Barbara Mistick in January 2013 to accept undergraduate male commuter students that fall, and residents beginning this fall.

Related: Black colleges face uphill battle to survive

The school already admits men to graduate-level programs, and has offered bachelor’s degrees to men in the adult education program since 1982. In 1996, the Women With Children program began offering housing and childcare services for single mothers while they pursue undergraduate degrees full-time. At its peak, the program hosted about 40 mothers. Last year, just 17 students enrolled, according to Katie Kough, director of the program.

“This college has been trying to implement programs for 30 years to address the stagnant enrollment in the undergraduate college. Those efforts have not gotten us anywhere near where we need to be,” said Speer.

“What’s at stake is that there will be limits again to the options women have if women’s colleges don’t exist.” – Marilyn Hammond, president, Women’s College Coalition

The move to admit male undergraduates, he said, was one part of a broader plan to revitalize the school that includes a 17 percent tuition reduction and a loan buyback program.

Concerned students and alumnae have formed two groups to protest the change. One, Wilson College Women, is led by lawyer and 1980 graduate Gretchen Van Ness; it has 465 members on its public Facebook page. Another, Wild Wilson Women, has more than 1,400 members.

Van Ness started a fundraising campaign using the crowd-funding website GoFundMe, to cover potential legal costs as her organization fights to keep the college single-gender. In the campaign’s first 27 days, 52 people donated nearly $9,000. A Change.org petition opposing the admittance of male students has 1,666 signatures.

Related: Students paying extra for business skills they say they haven’t learned on campus

Van Ness sat on the commission that made suggestions to Mistick and said it didn’t support coeducation as a way to boost enrollment. She said the administration broke state department of education protocol that requires it to propose amendments to the college’s articles of incorporation and wait for approval before making changes.

Instead, Van Ness and others say, the college immediately advertised itself as coed, hired coaches for male athletic teams, and started preparing dorms for male residential students.

Wilson insists that changes to its charter in 1993 already gave it permission to admit men. And, despite the pushback, three male commuter students enrolled in the college in the fall of 2013.

“All of a sudden, Wilson’s identity as a women’s college had just disappeared,” said Van Ness.

In June, the women behind Wilson College Women were granted a hearing at the Pennsylvania Department of Education, where they made the case for state intervention that would block any further undergraduate coed operations at the school.

The agency continues to collect information about the situation, and there is no scheduled date for a decision, said Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller.

Related: Can historically black colleges serve mostly white students?

At Chatham, the decision to admit men was a long time coming.

“It’s been a topic of conversation for 20 years. The idea was to keep the undergraduate women’s college and diversify the graduate programs,” said spokesman Bill Campbell.

Despite pushback from alumnae, male undergraduate commuter students were admitted in 2013. Males have been admitted to adult degree and graduate programs since the early 1980s, though, and Brian Speer, a Wilson spokesman, said the experience has been coed for about 30 years. Undergraduates and other degree candidates sometimes share classes. “Very few go through the whole program without males,” said Speer. (Photos: Wilson College Communications)

In 1992, men were invited to apply to graduate and other programs. Today, they make up about 15 percent of students there.

That change proved temporarily successful, but enrollment again took a nosedive in 2008 at the height of the recession. Campbell said the school had to ask hard questions about whether it could afford to uphold the mission to educate just women.

“Less and less women are interested in women’s colleges today. Can we feasibly continue to put this much money to this mission decision?” said Campbell.

More than just women’s colleges are finding themselves in the same predicament. A Standard and Poor’s report released in February expects the next few years to be especially hard financially for small, increasingly expensive liberal arts colleges, law schools, and religiously oriented colleges, along with single-gender ones.

Related: As white enrollment sags, colleges turn to new market: Hispanics

“If you’re automatically focusing on just one half of the population, you’re missing out on an opportunity to bring in additional students,” said Jessica Matsumori, the lead credit analyst at Standard and Poor’s who authored the report.

Elite women’s colleges including Wellesley and Barnard have remained relatively untouched by these issues. But others are targeting new audiences, such as Trinity Washington University, whose enrollment jumped when it shifted its recruiting efforts to focus on minority women.

At Chatham, Campbell said the decision to admit men was proactive — the school relied on the Standard and Poor’s report as an indication of trouble to come. Chatham got a BBB- rating, signifying that it had become a risky investment.

“Overall our balance sheet was very positive each year. The problem was the decline in undergraduate enrollment,” he said.

Campbell said the school has not lost its commitment to women. Its new Women’s Institute will address social inequalities facing women starting this school year.

Admitting men can be a financial solution for struggling schools, but it’s important for women to have a range of choices when they pick a college, said Marilyn Hammond, president of the Women’s College Coalition — including the choice to attend an all-women’s campus.

“What’s at stake is that there will be limits again to the options women have if women’s colleges don’t exist,” said Hammond.

At Wilson, Van Ness and other opponents say they hope the state will protect that option. Van Ness was a junior and president of the student government at Wilson in 1979, when faculty and students protested the school’s closure, which was eventually blocked by a judge.

“We made history once,” said Van Ness. “As tough as it is out there in the constantly changing world of higher education, there is still a place for women’s colleges.”

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Alexandria Neason is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has contributed to Chalkbeat New York, WAMU’s Metro Connection, National Public Radio’s Ombudsman...

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. The version of this story as it appeared in Time contained the quote, “At Chatham University, the decision to admit men was much less controversial”. I’m wondering why that quote isn’t included in this version.

    If you had researched beyond the Kool-Aid offered you by Mr. Campbell and Chatham administration, you would have found ample evidence to the contrary.

    Those who have organized to oppose Chatham’s decision are preparing a response to the Time version of this story.

  2. In the September 29 article penned by Alexandria Neason for The Hechinger Report, and reported on Time.com, “Why Women’s Colleges are Opening the Door for Men,” it was suggested by Chatham spokesperson Bill Campbell that “At Chatham University, the decision to admit men was much less controversial” than the decision by Wilson College to become a coeducational institution. Chatham’s administration continues to believe that the opposition to their decision was limited to a “small, but passionate, group of alumnae,”but the momentum the Save Chatham movement built in a short time proves otherwise.

    The Save Chatham movement, consisting of more than 2,100 alumnae and supporters, launched on social media just hours after alumnae and current students received an email from Chatham announcing the resolution. Save Chatham’s mission brought these women together to brainstorm ways to fundraise, increase enrollment, and to continue to provide future generations of women the option to become World Ready Women at Chatham. The short-term mission of Save Chatham quickly changed to focusing on delaying the June vote as Chatham’s administration increasingly disrespected and disregarded alumnae and refused to have open and honest discussions.

    Chatham’s administration, particularly President Esther Barazzone, has unsuccessfully attempted to make this decision “much less controversial.”During the town hall meetings in March, Dr. Barazzone dismissed alumnae lines of questioning and obfuscated the facts when she did not want to answer questions. She rejected outright many of the solutions offered by alumnae, giving many alumnae the impression that the decision already had been made, a belief that was strengthened when promotional materials for the decision and its tenets were made public immediately after the vote. Peaceful protests on campus on April 23 resulted in alumnae being threatened with arrest and escorted off-campus by campus security. On May 1, the day of the Board of Trustees vote, alumnae, current students, and supporters were corralled into a“Free Speech Zone” by the very institution that taught many of us how to use our voices to stand up for what we believe to be right. Following the vote in favor of a coed Chatham, Save Chatham transitioned to the Chatham College Independent Alumnae Association in order to provide a safe space for alumnae to process the decision while still identifying with the former college. When it became clear that the new alumnae group would not be disbanding, Chatham University issued “cease & desist” letters to Chatham College Independent Alumnae Association administrators and threatened legal action if the group did not immediately discontinue using the name “Chatham” in its title, further alienating alumnae.

    The Save Chatham/Chatham College Independent Alumnae Association lives on today as the Filiae Nostrae Society (FNS). The name is derived from the Chatham College motto “Filiae nostrae sicut antarii lapides: that our daughters may be as cornerstones.” The FNS provides disenfranchised alumnae of Chatham College for Women a place to call home and gives alumnae an opportunity to network, to shine the spotlight on them and their successes, to support institutions that value a women’s-only environment, to reinvigorate former relationships and to build new ones with women from former and current women’s colleges – all part of alumnae engagement that Chatham abandoned long before the vote.

    Additional information, including documentation supporting the information outlined above, can be found atwww.savechatham.com or Save Chatham’s Facebook page. Information about the Filiae Nostrae Society can be found atourdaughtersourfuture.com.

    Sincerely,

    The Filiae Nostrae Society and supporting alumnae:

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *