Over the past 100 years, schools began to open their doors to women, and most women’s colleges went co-ed themselves or were forced to close. Today, there are fewer than 60 women-only colleges, and their number is dwindling.

By Sean Tubbs, VoA News


Lynchburg, Virginia – October 31, 2006 – Sweet Briar College is a small liberal arts school in the Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was founded in 1901 with an endowment from a wealthy woman who wanted to honor her daughter, who had died in her teens. Sweet Briar President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld explains that at the time, higher education for women was a rarity. “Up until the 20th century, there continued to be real concern as to whether or not higher education was good for women. Many scientists and political and religious figures who feared it might unfit women for marriage, or that they were a little bit too weak for all of this heavy studying.”

Arguments like those kept women out of elite private schools such as Harvard and Yale, as well as public universities subsidized by state governments. But women have been getting college degrees since Wesleyan and Mount Holyoke opened their doors in the 1830’s. Women’s colleges flourished through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and there were well over 200 by the late 1960’s.

Sweet Briar President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld
Sweet Briar President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld

Muhlenfeld says single-sex education offers women a singular advantage. “It’s very exciting for young women, who have sat in co-educational classrooms where very often the boys in the classroom are getting the attention, to come to a college where everyone is a woman and where women’s minds are the principle goal and issue of the institution.” Muhlenfeld experienced that for herself at Goucher College in Maryland when that school was still all-women. It began to admit men in 1986 – part of a national trend toward co-education.

The trend is due primarily to the economics of liberal arts colleges, which operate on a fragile financial model. “Clearly we’re selling something for much less money then it actually costs us to deliver,” Muhlenfeld explains. “That is to say, it costs approximately $50,000 to $60,000 a year to educate a student at a liberal arts college, primarily because we have such low student-faculty ratios. And all of our teaching is done by full-time faculty with doctoral degrees.”

However, even with high academic standards and generous financial assistance, market research indicates that fewer than a third of today’s college-bound women will even consider a woman’s college.

That doesn’t surprise Ginger Worden, interim president of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, just down the road from Sweet Briar. “What happens when your college name is Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and the brochure comes in to a young woman’s house and  we don’t even get a chance to show her the other things that we have to offer as a college.” Worden reports that by going co-ed, many former women’s colleges find they are attracting more women to their campuses then they were before.

And that’s something the Board of Trustees are hoping will happen at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. In September, the board voted overwhelmingly to admit men to the 115-year-old school. But the decision caused an outcry among the student body. Alumnae joined students for angry demonstrations. Students barricaded the president’s house, and plastered protest signs across the campus. Some, like sophomore Lindsay McCullough, felt betrayed. “I’m really upset about the recent news,” she says, explaining, “I transferred into the school this year, not anticipating it would go co-ed. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to transfer out. I really feel the school is losing a lot. A lot of what makes the school so great is the unity and the sisterhood that is here, and I think it’s all going to be gone and it’s unfortunate I’m going to graduate from a school that no longer exists.”

Interim President Ginger Worden is an RMWC alumna
Interim President Ginger Worden is an R-MWC alumna

At least 200 of her classmates have picked up the necessary paperwork to transfer to another school, but Ginger Worden hopes many of them will reconsider. She sympathizes with students who feel they’ve been let down by the board, pointing out that she herself graduated from the College in 1969. But, she says going co-ed will bring in more students and more tuition dollars, a necessary step to maintain the school’s high academic standards. “As I saw the data and watched the deliberations and really delved into the financial picture of the college, as much as I believed in the single-sex environment that I experienced as a student, I also realized it was untenable for the future, so I fully supported the decision that the board arrived at.”

Worden says she understands that not all of her students support the decision. One explains, “When we’re in class, we can have some really awesome conversations that we could never have in a co-ed classroom, it’s just, like, all the girls feel comfortable around each other.” Another predicts, “When we go co-ed, it’s going to be a shock to everyone here, and when it goes into this shock, no one is going to learn everything, and even this year, I feel like even this year I’ve learned less then I would have had if this decision hadn’t been made.”

Meanwhile, the board of trustees at Sweet Briar College recently re-affirmed that school’s commitment to remain female-only. But, President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld says, depending on future enrollment and finances, the institution may have to re-visit the option again in 10 or 20 years.


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This article originally appeared on Voice of America News at VoANews.com.

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