“We are becoming extinct”: Women’s colleges go coed to bring in students
Share Now on:
Lots of Notre Dame of Maryland University students were at lunch when they learned earlier this month that the school would be accepting men next fall.
“Everybody gets this email at the same time and chaos ensues,” said senior Alexandria Malinowski. “People are crying, people are upset, people are running to their advisers or their professors. … Then they run into their office, and then their professor’s also crying.”
Notre Dame was founded by nuns in 1895 in Baltimore specifically to educate women, who were then excluded from many other institutions of higher education. There are fewer than three dozen women’s colleges in the United States, down from approximately 230 at their peak in the 1950s, according to the Women’s College Coalition. Many have merged with other schools, closed or started accepting men. There are obvious cultural ramifications to the decision, but this is, at its core, an economic choice.
No one knows that better than Sister Pat McLaughlin. She graduated from Notre Dame in 1966 and joined the order that founded the school when she was a junior. She is now chair of the school’s board of trustees, which made the decision to go coed.
“It was hard. There was a sadness. But the facts are undeniable,” McLaughlin said.
The facts are that in the next few years, there will be fewer college-age students, period. And fewer than 2% of female freshmen are enrolling in private women’s colleges, according to a review by Notre Dame. Like most schools, it depends on tuition as a source of revenue. It costs just over $39,000 annually to attend. (The school says the average amount paid after scholarships is $20,000.) By accepting men, Notre Dame is expanding its potential market.
It will likely lose at least a few students along the way. Some current undergraduates are considering transferring, like freshman Tatum Capinpin. Standing outside the lunchroom where she got the news, she’s wearing a blue Notre Dame sweatshirt, but is willing to put on another one. She’s considering another women’s college or a school that has a history of being coed.
“[One] that’s actually run through it before. I don’t want to stay here where it’s all going to be like a trial experiment,” Capinpin said.
Her roommate, freshman Caitlin Cottrill, is already working on transfer applications to women’s colleges, including Smith and Barnard, which are part of the Seven Sisters, a conference of historic women’s colleges formed in 1927.
“They have more protection to stay women’s colleges, because they have bigger names, bigger enrollment,” Cottrill said.
One of the reasons both Capinin and Cottrill originally came to Notre Dame is its size: With about 800 undergraduates on campus, most seem to know each other by name. It’s also economically and racially diverse: 55 percent of students receive Pell Grants, which are designed for low-income students, and about half of the undergraduates are people of color.
“My mom was surprised. She’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of Black people here!’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’” said senior Eliana Coffey.
But Coffey is concerned that having male undergrads will undercut the special qualities that a women-only atmosphere is designed to provide.
“They’ll speak out, because they always do. Then that’s when the women on campus become uncomfortable,” Coffey said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t go wear this to class. Like, this is a cute fit, but I might get heckled by a man.’”
When Rosemont College, just outside of Philadelphia, went coed in 2009, it involved figuring out where the male students would live, what sports to offer and changing the school’s mascot from Rosie the Rosemonster to Renny the Raven. All of this upset some alumni.
“You just need to go through the process,” said Jim Cawley, now Rosemont’s interim president. “It’s almost like a grieving process.”
Cawley said the school’s enrollment went up following the change.
“Had Rosemont College not made that decision, it would likely have had to close its doors,” Cawley said.
But even when a school’s transition is successful, something is lost.
“We are becoming extinct,” said Emerald Archer, executive director of the Women’s College Coalition, and a professor of political science at Mount Saint Mary’s University, a women’s college in Los Angeles.
Archer is advocating for women’s colleges to receive a federal designation, similar to the one given to historically Black colleges, in order to get priority for certain grants. She said while most women’s colleges are private liberal arts schools, 93% of students receive some kind of financial aid.
There was a sadness. But the facts are undeniable.Sister Pat McLaughlin, on Notre Dame of Maryland’s decision to go coed
“[This] is kind of our bat signal in the sky, right? Really bright, letting us know that women’s colleges need federal support,” Archer said.
Senior Eliana Coffey said she won’t be donating after graduation. But she’s glad she will be an alumna.
“I think in the end, it was worth it. Because of the friendships and connections that I’ve made with fellow students, as well as some faculty and staff, and even some of the people who work in the dining hall. I know I wouldn’t have had those types of relationships had I gone somewhere else,” Coffey said. “It’s just sad.”
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.