November 7, 2021
In the 19th century, women’s colleges numbered in the hundreds. By 2014, there were only 42, according to federal data. In 2021, there were 35.
Some of those institutions closed entirely. Others became coeducational as single-sex postsecondary education collapsed starting in the 1960s.
Since the beginning of 2021, two other institutions have moved to take their names off the list of women’s colleges.
Mills College, a private college in California, merged with Northeastern University last year to become a coeducational campus after declaring a financial emergency in 2017. Notre Dame of Maryland University announced just this September that it will be transitioning to coeducation and inviting men into its undergraduate program next year.
Many women’s colleges that consider coeducation are motivated by enrollment declines and accompanying financial troubles. Changing admissions criteria may help with those challenges, but the choice is not without its drawbacks. Coeducation often means a fundamental change in a college’s mission, and it’s one not everyone will be happy about.
Some feel the cost is worth the benefits.
“It’s been as successful as we had hoped and probably more so,” said Rhona Free, president of University of Saint Joseph, a private institution in Connecticut.
The college announced in 2017 that it would be admitting a coed undergraduate class the next year. Though administrators expected only about 50 men to enroll in the first term, about 100 did. Enrollment and retention of women went up as well. Housing occupancy increased from 61% to 94%.
“We’ve been operating at a surplus the last few years, and we’ve been able to use that surplus to make renovations to the campus that have been really needed to accommodate the increased enrollment,” Free said.
The university had been grappling with the beginnings of an enrollment decline due to falling numbers of high school graduates in the region, Free said. To recruit men effectively, administrators added majors, like computer science and exercise science, which they believed would appeal to the prospective students. Those majors have drawn more women as well, Free said.
“What made it a smooth process here was spending so much time speaking to alumni and our current students and faculty before the decision was made,” Free said. “We tried to make it so everyone understood, if we did make the decision to become coeducational, why we were doing it.”