Early in the fall of 2003, Elisabeth S. Muhlenfeld, president of Sweet Briar College, notified students of a meeting to discuss the future of the women's college. She expected a small room full of participants but instead got an overflow crowd -- roughly 120 people, or about a fifth of the student body.
Muhlenfeld says she shouldn't have been surprised by the turnout: When you mention "future" and "women's college" in the same sentence these days, the conversation is sure to land on the hot-button issue of coeducation.
And it did. Muhlenfeld explained to students that the college had formed a committee of faculty, alumnae, administrators and trustees that would recommend a course of action intended to reverse the dwindling enrollment and shrinking endowment.
"I told them we are putting all options on the table," Muhlenfeld says. "You can't do long-range planning if you refuse to consider the biggest option -- moving to coed."
Women's colleges across the country faced, and continue to face, the same issues and were having the same conversations -- some privately, some publicly. Another Virginia institution of similar size, Randolph-Macon Woman's College (which becomes Randolph College this summer), undertook a similar review a year ago and decided to go coed beginning this fall. Officials, who pointed to sagging enrollment, said there no longer was a critical mass of applicants wanting to attend a women's college to support its remaining single sex.
The move angered some students and alumnae, who said the problem was more with endowment mismanagement and lack of institutional leadership. Critics said the college made its coed decision largely behind closed doors, failed to provide sufficient forums for feedback and didn't seriously consider dissent. Before the board went into deliberations, it met privately with faculty and held a public meeting with students and alumnae. Randolph's interim president and a member of a steering committee said that the college was transparent and didn't blindside anyone with the announcement.
Sweet Briar ultimately decided to stay a women's college, and the short-term results have been favorable. The college, which saw a dip in first-year enrollment every year between 1999 and 2003, has seen a steady increase from 151 (fall 2003) to 209 (fall 2006).
Overall enrollment has also increased during that period, without a decrease in admission standards, according to Ken Huus, the college's dean of admissions. The middle 50 percent of Sweet Briar's students have SAT scores between 1030 and 1230. Tuition is $23,340, and the college, after years of increasing discount rates, has moved in the other direction, Huus says.
The enrollment trend at Sweet Briar has coincided with gains at several other women's colleges, including Hollins University, also in Virginia, which saw nearly 200 students in the fall 2006 freshman class -- the most in this decade. Trinity University, in Washington, also had a first-year class of about 200 students last fall (an increase from recent totals), says the college's president, Patricia McGuire.
As of late February, Randolph's regular applications are up 28 percent from the same time a year ago. Roughly 16.5 percent of the 960 students who applied through the traditional process are men, according to Brenda Edson, a university spokeswoman. An additional 400-plus students -- a third of whom are men -- have applied through a new online system. Edson says the numbers are pleasing to the university, especially given the late start in recruiting due to its name- change announcement in December.
Randolph and Sweet Briar look similar on paper, Muhlenfeld says. But on tactical decisions and enrollment calculus, the colleges are far apart. Muhlenfeld estimates that more than 8 in 10 Sweet Briar applicants aren't looking for a women's college, but that enough students either are won over or are willing to consider single-sex education to sustain the college.
Many have questioned that premise in recent years, as more and more colleges have become coed. Muhlenfeld says that Virginia's women's colleges faced a crossroads in the mid-1980s, when Washington & Lee University, previously all men, began to admit undergraduate women.
“That was the point at which we could no longer hide our heads and hope the phenomenon was going to change,” Muhlenfeld says.
David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and a Sweet Briar trustee, says that many women's colleges reluctantly discussed going coed as an option. "It wasn't an easy conversation for these schools to have," he says.
When Sweet Briar's “Shape of the Future” committee formed in 2003, college leaders decided to post the group's discussions in the alumnae magazine and on its Web site in the name of full disclosure.
The college held forums, published committee conversations and invited students to speak with trustees. Students, faculty and alumnae overwhelmingly supported remaining single sex, according to Muhlenfeld and the chair of the planning comittee, Virginia Collier.
“As a leader of the initiative, I felt that with a decision as controversial as going coed, it's important for everyone to understand the scope of the decision and that we're making it in a calculated way," says Collier, the board chairwoman.
Sheena Belcher, a 2005 Sweet Briar graduate who is an assistant director of admissions at the college, says she still remembers having a meal with trustees and trying to persuade them to keep the college single sex. "Looking back on it, I felt we were being heard and that our opinions factored into the final outcome," she says.
According to minutes from a Shape of the Future committee meeting, because a move to coed would have meant a "radical shift in mission," the college said it would make such a change only if there was overwhelming evidence that it would lead to more applicants. An outside consulting group determined that an ensuing enrollment spike was no sure deal.
The committee instead recommended that Sweet Briar focus on promoting itself better to young women and tightening connections with alumnae. The college began telling every student that she should be able to go abroad, regardless of her financial situation (while developing new scholarship pools). It involved alumnae and parents in student advising councils and added an engineering program (though not as a result of the committee's recommendations).
McGuire, the Trinity president, said Sweet Briar was smart to reposition itself.
"[The college] broke out of appearing to be sleepy or too elitist or too Southern," she said. "Women's colleges in general are making a better case for themselves as they understand that students want learning outcomes and they want amenities."
Trinity itself has gone through a transformation, as it decided to concentrate on recruiting low-income urban students to its college. “We serve a different slice of the market but are still dealing with the same issues and competing against low-cost state institutions," McGuire said.
And like Sweet Briar, Hollins is trumpeting its new programs -- increasing study abroad options and adding programs to its graduate school. Nancy Oliver Gray, Hollins's president, said a recent strategic plan affirms the college's determination to stay single sex.
Muhlenfeld said being a women's college is "clearly the right decision for us now, but that no one is under an illusion that 10 years from now we might not need to have this discussion again."