A Coed Strategy for Single-Sex Education

August 5, 2008

Administrators at one of the country’s shrinking number of undergraduate women’s colleges are betting that admitting more men into their overall institution just might preserve its founding commitment to single-gender education.

In March, Brenau University, in Gainesville, Ga. announced it was embarking on a plan, costing up to $55 million, to add numerous graduate and doctoral programs, doubling its general enrollment. The hope, according to the strategic plan adopted by Brenau’s Board of Trustees, is to have graduate students make up half of the institution’s student body. Currently, only about 25 percent of the 2,578 students are enrolled in graduate programs. The university has even flirted with the idea of establishing a medical college, though a final decision has yet to be reached. All the new programs would admit men and women. Although Brenau has enrolled men for decades in its evening, weekend and online colleges, coeducational programs would represent the majority of enrollment and be much more visible than they are now.

Many women's colleges over the years have decided to simply admit men and try to remain liberal arts institutions. Many others have stayed single-gender for undergraduate education, but added selected coeducational graduate programs. Brenau -- in both the size and breadth of what it plans to add and its commitment to preserving a women's undergraduate college -- appears to be going a new route.

In spite of all of these planned changes, Brenau President Ed Schrader insists that the university’s women’s college, whose enrollment will be limited to fewer than 1,000 students, will remain at the “core” of the institution. Although he said the addition of more graduate programs (and subsequently men) to the institution is designed to enhance the entire university, not just secure the future of the women's college, he has acknowledged the financial difficulties of maintaining a viable single-gender institution in today’s higher education market.

“Brenau has generally supported our women to such an extent that today Brenau actually loses over $2000.00 per year on every Women’s College student,” Schrader wrote to Anna-Elizabeth McCloud, a concerned 2002 alumna who recently published letters between the two online. “In years past the college actually lost as much as $4000.00 or more per student per year. Over the past 3 years, we have been able to reduce this loss each year by controlling costs and increasing enrollment a modest 35% or so.”

Schrader's letter continues to explain that the enrollment of about 1,600 students, of both genders, in the institution’s evening and weekend and online colleges typically generates a budget surplus that “pays for the support” of the Women’s College. Discussing the financial difficulties brought up by his correspondence with McCloud, Schrader said there was no doubt that such issues caused the university to consider its current strategy. He noted that it is not uncommon for residential undergraduate programs at small liberal arts colleges in the South to lose money, as they prove the most expensive to operate, citing the high cost of residential and student-life components among other essential infrastructure.

Schrader, however, said that student demographic changes have also prompted some of the institution’s proposed structural alterations. He noted that current studies indicate more adult students are seeking continuing or graduate education within Brenau’s geographic reach than younger students seeking an undergraduate education. Despite all of the university’s planned growth, he has affirmed his commitment to the women’s college multiple times, stating publicly that it will not turn coeducational as long as he remains university president.

“In the South, there are real needs for single-gender education,” Schrader said, asserting that the role of a women’s only institution has not been lost, especially in the university's region. “We need people to have opportunities to find their place in life. Women have yet to achieve equal opportunity to achieve equal compensation in jobs. Women have not achieved certain levels of leadership. The South needs that brainpower that’s collectively held to blossom into full flower.”

McCloud, who recently founded a network of concerned students, faculty and alumnae named “Brenau: the way it should be,” said the expansion of the university’s graduate programs and welcoming of more men does not concern her as much as the restructuring of the university’s undergraduate programs. The approved strategic plan calls for all undergraduate courses at the university, including the coed evening and weekend and online colleges, to be gathered under the same administrative umbrella.

This “blurring of the line” between the women’s college and the rest of the university’s coed undergraduate offerings concerns some alumnae, said McCloud, whose coordinating Facebook group has over 200 members. Although Schrader has ensured the maintenance of the women’s college, McCloud said she is concerned that the potential of coexisting co-ed courses during the daytime might lead to the eventual demise of single-gender classes and the Women’s College itself.

“Most of the alumni of my generation have no idea what is going on,” McCloud said, noting how concerned she has been about all of the proposed structural changes since Schrader was introduced as president in January 2005. “We come back, and it’s not the same women’s college. To see such a drastic change between presidents is shocking. Rather than telling us we’re ‘liabilities,’ I don’t understand why [the administration] can’t get women excited about their college.”

Noting that additional graduate and doctoral programs could have a potential “trickle-down effect,” McCloud said the university should instead focus on making its women’s college a destination for potential applicants. She added that when she was in high school, she did not want to attend a women’s college, but changed her mind after a visit to Brenau. The university, in her opinion, needs to market what it already has in place in the women’s college. She said the university’s recent shift of attention away from the women’s college has affected how others view her degree.

“When they market the evening and weekend college it sounds like DeVry or ITT Tech,” McCloud said of the university’s marketing campaign, referring to two competing for-profit institutions. “I’ve had people look at my degree on my wall and say, ‘Oh, that’s the college on the radio.’ You’ll never see the women’s college getting bolstered. I’m of the opinion that you should fix what you have before you start expanding. I would suggest that the structure we have in place now needs to be perfectly sound before we start growing exponentially."

Even before the proposed changes addressed by the university’s strategic plan, Provost Helen Ray said Brenau’s institutional identity, as a women’s college with additional co-ed offerings, was difficult to describe to the public. As most of the institution’s history is that of a women’s college, she said the university will have to take this opportunity of expansion to clarify its mission and the educational goals it has of all its students. In the 1970s, Ray explained, the move to admit men into the Evening and Weekend College was part “survival strategy” and part “prophetic move,” in that it anticipated a growing demographic that the university would one day continue to serve. With the admission of more men, she said the university must have an identity that the public can understand easily. In light of this strategy, she said she is unsure of the future of the Women’s College, in spite of President Schrader’s promise.

“Opening up programs to men and women allows you to increase enrollment,” Ray said of the university’s new programs. “It helps perpetuate the Women’s College component, but it makes it much harder to perpetuate, and it makes it really difficult to deliver the message to the public what your mission is. I don’t know how well the Women’s College is going to survive. Change is unsettling. It gives you a chance to look at old things in a new way.”

Ray has a unique perspective on the changes at Brenau. She is an alumna of Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Va., which changed its name to Randolph College when it officially opened its doors to men last fall. She said she views the coeducational move of her alma mater through two sets of eyes, as an alumna and as an administrator. Though some associated with Brenau have expressed serious concern about the future of its women’s college, as Ray said she did as an alumna of Randolph-Macon, she said there are a number of significant voices, both on campus and off, who do not have an opinion one way or the other about the structural changes and admission of more men into the institution.

“Here’s where I think a deep divide occurs over sympathies,” Ray, who will retire in December, said of the administration’s ongoing task. “Do you keep living alums happy or do you plan to serve students who will come here in the future? We’ve reach a point in higher education where there may have to be some tough love in communicating, tactfully and diplomatically, that this is what we may have to do for the future.”

Whether considering the feasibility of becoming fully coeducational or not, any major institutional change is hard for alumnae, according to Susan Lennon, executive director of the Women’s College Coalition. Her alma mater, like Ray’s, also recently become coeducational; Wells College, in Aurora, N.Y., made the controversial move in 2005. Most women’s colleges, she said, have programs from both nontraditional and male students in some capacity, either at the graduate or continuing educational level. Ultimately, Lennon said a decision to become completely coeducational does not mean that a women’s college has abandoned its founding mission. Although this is not entirely the case at Brenau, Lennon said the university and other women’s colleges in positions like it will have to help the public understand what’s on the horizon in higher education today.

“Part of the [Women’s College Coalition] is to make the case for women’s education and women’s college,” Lennon said, noting that it, like its member institutions, has had to adapt to fit the times. “I don’t know if it’s that there’s a significant mission change at women’s colleges as much as a contemporary interpretation of their founding mission. Given what’s on the horizon in the next 10 years, every institution in higher education is going to be making tough decisions. Those tough decisions don’t mean that you have to compromise the integrity of your mission. Women’s colleges are not defined by lack of men but by their actions.”

Schrader admits that any time an institution proposes major changes not everyone will be happy. But he remains optimistic about the future at Brenau. He said he views the move of Brenau to admit men in a limited capacity in the 1970s as “progressive” and views these recent changes as just another step in that process. Now, he and his staff have to find a way to implement and finance the strategic plan the university’s board has approved. The debate, he said, is all part of the fun.

“It’s all about strategy now,” Schrader said. “The thing that makes academe fun is that we have all these debates and conversations.”

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