- Associated Press - Saturday, March 1, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - When Chatham University was founded in 1869 under the name Pennsylvania Female College, it was born into a world of furious debate over the role of women’s higher education.

Would it reduce the number of marriages? Were women smart enough? Or even physically capable? One retired Harvard Medical School professor wrote in a 1873 report that women should not participate in higher education if they hoped for a future “secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria and other derangements of the nervous system.”

As Chatham considers admitting male undergraduates for the first time in its history, the debate over women’s higher education continues. But the issues involved have flipped.

With women now doing so well in higher education — outnumbering men in earning degrees from the associate to doctoral level — is there still a need for single-sex education?


Chatham’s decision was driven by two factors, said president Esther Barazzone in a written statement of prepared reflections: “the difficulty of reaching a critical mass of students in contemporary times and the philosophical question of whether educating women alone continues to be the best way to give women a quality education in the 21st century.”

Only 2 to 4 percent of high school females are interested in attending a women’s college, Ms. Barazzone said. And with that small of a market share, recruitment is difficult.

“We have spent twice as much money marketing our women’s college as we have all of our other programs,” she said.

Even so, it represents less than a third of the university’s total enrollment of nearly 2,200. “We project we will reach untenable numbers in very few years under current circumstances,” she said.

The number of women’s colleges in the U.S. has declined from more than 200 in the 1960s to fewer than 50 today. The number of women enrolled in women’s colleges has decreased from 103,452 in 1998 to 95,677 in 2006 to 79,099 in 2011, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Colleges that only admit men have become coeducational even more rapidly. Only three such colleges — Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., Morehouse College in Atlanta and Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden-Sydney, Va. — remain.

Chatham, Bryn Mawr College, Cedar Crest College and Moore College of Art and Design are the last Pennsylvania women’s colleges, with schools such as Carlow University, Wilson College and Immaculata University going fully co-educational or admitting a limited number of men in recent years.

That said, there is still a place for women’s colleges, said Barbara Mistick, president of Wilson College in Chambersburg, which started admitting men in the fall.

“I still believe that there is a very distinct need for women’s colleges — not all women feel comfortable and competitive in coed environments and generally we want to support diversity of options,” she said. “But my sense is that we will not see as many women’s institutions in the future as we see today.”

Some women’s colleges are still thriving in attracting applicants, such as Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Barnard College in New York City.

Marilyn Hammond, interim president of the Women’s College Coalition, understands why colleges are seeking to diversify and add men to their student body. But she believes women on campus do lose something tangible when colleges go coed.

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