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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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