Going coed often only option

Debra Erdley
| Monday, March 3, 2014, 9:40 p.m.

They engender fierce loyalties and count cabinet secretaries, physicians, scientists, CEOs and prize-winning poets and playwrights among their graduates.

But the number of women's colleges is down from nearly 300 six decades ago to fewer than 50. And now, Chatham University in Shadyside, from which conservationist Rachel Carson graduated, is considering admitting men. It could become coed by fall 2015, if trustees approve.

Alumnae, who were stunned with the announcement and organized “Save Chatham” campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, say they will turn out en masse at Chatham on Wednesday for the school's first town hall forum on the proposal. Spokeswoman Kate DiStefano said they are hoping to persuade the school to consider other options.

But the odds may be against them.

“There are massive market challenges to women's colleges at the undergraduate level,” said David Strauss, a higher education consultant from Baltimore. “Of high school women taking the SAT, only 2 percent say they would consider a women's college.”

Although women's colleges range from well-endowed to financially struggling institutions, and women now account for 60 percent of all college students, none of the schools born in an age when most colleges barred women has escaped the tides of cultural change and time.

Even two of the prestigious “Seven Sisters” colleges, Radcliffe and Vassar, exist no more.

Yet advocates say women's colleges have a place in higher education.

Marilyn Hamilton, interim president of the Women's College Coalition, said research shows they play an important role in nurturing women who later hold leadership positions.

Chatham President Esther Barazzone, who arrived at the school 22 years ago when it was in the midst of a financial crisis, said the school would have gone coed then if numbers had been its sole consideration. Instead, it built successful coed graduate and professional adult programs around the women's college and is building what it calls the nation's first sustainable campus on a farm north of Pittsburgh, financing it with grants and loans.

Barazzone said the proposal to go coed is a response to economic forces that have prompted predictions from Wall Street that some of the nation's small private colleges will close in the coming decade.

Chatham is weathering soaring costs, dwindling undergraduate enrollment and a high percentage of students who need institutional aid, or so-called tuition discounts.

Barazzone said the average tuition discount approaches 50 percent at Chatham, and almost no students pay the full $40,000-a-year sticker price.

Last year, Chatham funneled $5 million from its coed graduate and professional education programs to subsidize the women's college. In 2008 when enrollment in the college peaked at more than 700 students, the college required $2 million in subsidies, she said.

Chatham's undergraduate enrollment, edging down toward 500, is not adequate to support the cost of the women's college, Barazzone said, adding that 800 to 1,000 students would be ideal.

Carlow University in Oakland, which labels itself a women's-centered university, went coed in the late 1960s. It enrolls about 11 percent men. Seton Hill University in Greensburg made the leap in 2002 when it renovated dorms and added men's sports. About 37 percent of its students are men.

In August, Wilson College in Chambersburg, another small women's college struggling with declining enrollment, went coed despite emotional pleas from alumnae, some of whom threatened court action.

Brian Speer, vice president for enrollment at Wilson, said applications at the school, which will admit men as residential students this fall, are double what they were at this time last year. And 19 percent of new applicants are men.

Many of Chatham's loyal alumnae, who are among the strongest boosters of single-sex education, concede they weren't considering a women's college until they visited the school.

“It's about getting (prospective students) to see the advantages. A lot of students thought it wasn't exciting. But then they get on campus and see the sisterhood. We have to be able to show them the benefits of a women's college and get that first look at what a women's college can give you,” said DiStefano, a 2008 Chatham graduate.

DiStefano said alumnae want to work with the administration to maintain single-sex education.

Barazzone insists Chatham will not retreat from its commitment to women if it admits men.

“We intend to create a women's leadership academy. We created the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship and the Center for Women & Politics. Those programs aren't going to go away.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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