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October 07, 2013

Trustees at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill voted to go co-ed in July.

They’ve been part of the higher education landscape since 1837 when Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., opened its doors. But today, some women’s colleges are struggling to fill their seats.

Twice in the past six months, trustees at traditionally women-only schools have responded to that challenge by voting to go co-ed.

When sophomore Megan Badohu enrolled at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, she said she hoped to receive a small, liberal arts women-centered education.

“I personally wanted to come to an all-women’s school because I definitely feel more comfortable studying with all women,” she said. “It’s a different environment studying with men in the class.”

Since arriving at Pine Manor, Badahu said she’s found her voice. 

On a recent afternoon, Badohu rushes across campus at Pine Manor to her criminal justice seminar. As the green leaves begin to fade to gold, she said she was disappointed that the trustees voted in July to begin accepting men.

“Since Pine Manor has been an all-girls school, I was surprised that it was going to go co-ed but I guess money issues are there,” she said. 

Money issues, yes, and demographic changes, too.

Today, only 50 women’s colleges are left in the U.S. – eight in New England. That’s down from more than 250 in the 1950s.  Studies show fewer than three percent of college-bound women even consider attending a women’s college.

Student recruitment has become an international business. In recent years, many colleges and universities have increased their recruiting of women abroad, paying commissions to agents who recruit foreign students and posting online ads in foreign languages.

Interim Pine Manor College President Doctor Joseph Lee predicts in 20 years there will only be four or five women’s colleges left in the U.S. 

But for the vast majority of women’s colleges, international outreach hasn’t reversed the trend.

“The market is incredibly competitive,” explained Dr. Joseph Lee, interim president at Pine Manor. “The number of high school seniors has been dropping for about 12 years. That’s just reality.”

A reality that Lee considers all the time. Between conference calls with various credit agencies, the interim school president explains how enrollment at Pine Manor has dropped dramatically, from more than 500 students in the 1990s to 350 today.

“But the good news is it’s leveled off in the past two or three years and we’re projecting a pretty big uptick for the coming year,” he said.

After much back and forth, trustees finally decided it was time to become co-ed. Now, with so much change in the higher education landscape, Lee said Pine Manor is looking to revamp its marketing campaign.

“Certainly in this country but also internationally as well,” he said. “And I think by opening the market to men you also attract more women.”

At a time when more and more schools pretend to cost more than they actually do, President Lee said the women’s college business model is no longer sustainable.

“Ninety-seven percent of young women do not want a single-sex institution. So you rule out 97 percent of the women and 100 percent of the men,” Lee figured. “It’s pretty compelling.”

In 20 years there will only be four or five women’s colleges left, Lee predicted. But others disagree.

Marilyn Hammond is president of the Women’s College Coalition, which shares research and advocates for admissions.

“Women’s colleges have a unique commitment to the success of women and girls,” Hammond said.

A commitment seen at schools such as Wellesley College, which brands itself as “an educational experience that honors and cultivates” women and what they offer to the world. With a huge endowment and prominent alumnae, including Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, everyone agreed: Wellesley should be around for a long time.

Still, Hammond admitted that many colleges face demographic and business challenges. But it would be shortsighted to suggest the model is failing or is outdated, she said. 

“What we know from our research is that the women who choose women’s colleges are looking for academic excellence. And they find it in these colleges,” Hammond said. “They’re looking for a certain kind of teaching style which tends to be collaborative and give students a lot of chances for interaction.” 

You can witness that interaction at the Thirsty Mind Café in South Hadley. Across the street from Mount Holyoke College, the world’s oldest women’s college, students sip coffee and swap stories as they study for midterms.

Senior Hiwote Akalu studies international relations and economics here at Mount Holyoke College. She said her experience growing up in Ethiopia influenced her decision to attend.

“In the society I was raised in gender was a very decisive factor as to whether people should be educated,” Akalu said. “I thought coming to an all-women’s college would be a very empowering experience.”

Now, as she prepares to graduate, Hiwote said she struggles to imagine a world without women‘s colleges.

“I think there’s a lot to be lost because you lose that sense of empowerment – that focus on you as an intellectual and not just as someone who is achieving something in relation to men.”

“The fact that we’re a women’s college is significant part of who we are,” said Mount Holyoke’s dean of admissions Diane Anci, making the pitching she often delivers to prospective parents and students who are increasingly interested in their return on investment, or ROI. 

“It’s the first time in the 26 years I’ve been doing admission and enrollment work I actually have parents and students talking to me about what they can expect their ROI to be,” Anci said. “We all have to be thinking hard about how we’re preparing students for complex, rapidly changing worlds.” 

Mount Holyoke College’s dean of admissions Diane Anci is counting on international recruitment to maintain enrollment. 

Anci is also thinking hard about recruiting students from overseas. This summer, Mount Holyoke signed a lease on the college’s first apartment in Shanghai to expand recruitment in China and throughout Asia.

“It is an important region to us, given the quality of the students we’re enrolling and the success they’ve had here at Mount Holyoke,” she added. “And, yeah, it’s a commitment.”

Back at Pine Manor College, Megan Badohu said she’s so disappointed in the trustees’ decision to turn co-ed that she’s planning to transfer.

“It was an outrage,” Badohu said. “I’m going to be [studying] criminal justice still but I’m going to go to another school that has a better program.”

Pine Manor College presses on and is now accepting applications from men for the spring semester.  

For the past week, we've been asking our online audience about women's-only colleges. Read responses here. 

Wellesley College senior Laura Bruno joined Greater Boston to talk about why she hopes her school won't follow suit. And Antoinette Hays, the president of Regis College, a former women's college, discussed the school's transition to coeducation. See what they had to say below:

women's colleges, pine manor, wellesley, mount holyoke, college, increasing access and success, social contract, confronting cost, higher ed

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