When women's colleges have decided in recent years to start admitting men, many institutions have extolled the women's-college tradition, and noted the regret with which they are moving in a new direction. But when Georgian Court University announced last week  that it would transition to a fully coeducational institution, it noted a widely understood national trend but one that is rarely cited whenever a women’s college announces it will start accepting men: everyone’s doing it.
More specifically, noted Sister Rosemary E. Jeffries, president of Georgian Court, 10 women’s colleges in as many years have gone coed -- leaving only about 50 classifying themselves as the former.
“There’s not a lot, so nine out of what was, let’s say 60 – that’s a lot. I mean, that’s more than 10 percent in the more recent past,” Sister Rosemary said in an interview. “It is really about the changing nature of our world and society…. All of these factors keep on making us say, ‘What’s going to be best in regard to the kind of mission we have?’ ”
Susan Lennon, president of the Women’s College Coalition, said the question with which Sister Rosemary grappled is the same one that led those other nine colleges – and the bevy that “changed their status” before that – to merge, close, or become fully coed. (While the exact number of women’s colleges that have existed is uncertain, some estimates place the figure at around 200.)
Women’s colleges are, of course, facing their own set of unique challenges as higher education as a whole is in a time of transition. Founded to serve female students when they were ignored or discriminated against by much of higher education, these institutions are now re-evaluating their purpose as women’s options have multiplied.
Some women's colleges -- outside the renowned and well-established Seven Sisters institutions in the Northeast (including Barnard College, selected by President Obama this year as an ideal site to talk about women's issues) -- are doing quite well; take for instance Scripps College, the women's institution of the Claremont Colleges in California, and Mills College, the first women's college west of the Rocky Mountains. Others have found success in focusing on certain niches: Trinity Washington University, founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, focuses with great success on educating low-income women from Washington, D.C.
“These are tough times – these are tough times. So I think people are really looking at, what are the things that they need to do to remain mission-centered but in that 21st-century interpretation," Lennon said, "but being market-smart.”
“I just don’t think the number is important, I think what’s really important is looking at how these women’s colleges are affecting their missions today, and why women’s colleges are so important in terms of the education and success of women and girls.”
At Georgian Court, a Mercy university, that mission is to provide a Catholic-infused, values-driven education – and its special concern for women will not fade with this transition (part of a broader strategic plan), Sister Rosemary said. The university was already largely coed; with evening and graduate courses open to male students, men could already participate in nearly two-thirds of the college’s academic offerings. Now, men will be admitted to the residential undergraduate college. The university’s Division II athletic department will also form men’s teams in cross-country, soccer, basketball and track and field.
By and large, and among alumnae in particular, the feedback has been positive, Sister Rosemary said.
“What a number of [alumnae] would say to me is, ‘As much as I loved Georgian Court, I couldn’t get my daughter to go there…. She wanted to go to a coeducational environment,’ ” Jeffries said.
While there doesn't appear to be any organized protest in the works, as has been the case at some other colleges that have gone coed, some students have griped to local media. Jennifer Valentin, a member of the student government executive board, told the Asbury Park Press  she was "fully against" the change at first, but then she "heard about how our school was struggling, and I said this is something our school needs to do."
But Valentin still had reservations: “The No. 1 issue (against) is our clubs and organizations on campus," she said. "We have a full female student organization. What is going to happen to those? They are going to have to change. Men will have their own leadership program and some day, we will have to mingle. But my heart says to keep it a women’s school.”
The 10-colleges-in-10-years figure is troubling to Meredith College president Jo Allen, who issued a statement  reaffirming her institution's commitment to an all-women status after neighboring North Carolina institution Peace College (now William Peace University) announced last year , amid much protest, that it would admit men. But she also agreed that the tendency to look at the pace of change or to get hung up on the numbers can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; that pointing to the many that have transitioned can encourage others to do the same.
“I do think that’s part of it, but I still say there’s the opportunity for the remaining women’s colleges,” Allen said. “There is an opportunity for the remaining women’s colleges to be very clear about the value added and to talk about how that actually strengthens them and their positions and what they have to offer students.”
At Meredith, which with nearly 2,000 students is one of the largest women’s colleges in the nation, applications are up 10 percent this year and enrollment is up as well, Allen said. Nearly 90 percent of students land a job or pursue further education within a year of graduating. And students who come out of women’s colleges tend to be more confident and satisfied with their education than those from coed institutions, she said. With all the talk of negatives (both at women’s colleges and just in general) it can be hard to get that message out there, Allen said – but it’s never been more important to do so.
“You’ve got people that are questioning the value of college, and they’re complaining about cost and how long it takes students to graduate and this, that and the other, and you feel you’re kind of jumping up and down, saying, ‘Look at us! Look at us!’ ” Allen said. “We’re being drowned out by pessimism and a lack of clarity.”
But William Peace President Debra M. Townsley points out that only 2 or 3 percent of female students consider attending a women’s college – meaning that when one opens its doors to male students, not only is it expanding its reach to 100 percent of men, it’s also opening its doors to 98 percent more women. (She also noted that only a dozen or so of the remaining women’s colleges are completely closed to men.)
“I think the reason that a school like Peace has been around so long is that it adapts to the changes of the market, and to the needs and wants of students, and that’s the bottom line,” Townsley said. As at Meredith, nine in 10 William Peace graduates get jobs in their first year out of college. “We’re here to develop students and student potential, and they have to need what you offer and they have to want what you have to offer."
But at William Peace, the transition wasn't exactly smooth. The move to coed sparked petitions and protests  from some outraged students and alumnae, and the university said some courses would remain single-sex . Yet so far, a quarter of this year's incoming freshman class is male.
Georgian Court is the only faith-based institution in the lower 15 counties of New Jersey, Sister Rosemary said, so the university was blocking out the increasing number of students preferring to stay at home and commute to college – many of whom are surely men.
“I think for some, it was an obvious move. For others, it is a break of transition and might take some getting used to,” Jeffries said. “Hopefully we do this well, while still respecting the great tradition that Georgian Court has always had as an institution rooted in the Mercy tradition and the Mercy values of respect, integrity, justice, compassion and service. I think those values can mean as much to men as they do to women.”