Wheaton Remodels Coeducation A Former Women's College Works to Extend Its Traditions to the Men Now Admitted as Students

Article excerpt

`IT'S been a long, strange trip," reads the signature T-shirt of the graduating class here at Wheaton College, which was founded as a women's college in 1843 and began accepting men two years ago.

These graduating students - 244 women and two male transfer students - were the last class admitted to Wheaton expecting to graduate from an all-female school.

"We've experienced the fight ..., the change, and the initial dawning of the coed years at Wheaton," says Pauline Collins, senior-class president.

Wheaton plunged into coeducation with a unique goal in mind. "When we decided to become coed, we decided to do it differently - and we felt we had a wonderful opportunity to shape the campus community here in the way that we wanted to," says Hannah Goldberg, provost at Wheaton.

Two years into this process, it is difficult to determine Wheaton's success, say both insiders and outsiders. The effort does, however, provide a frame of reference for women's colleges that are considering the move from single-sex education to coeducation.

The recurrent debate over the issue has been fired up again by an uproar at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. A board of trustees' vote to admit men sparked the heated controversy.

The decision to go coeducational was reversed after Mills students took over the campus in protest and alumnae helped put together an alternative financial rescue plan.

Women's colleges, like black colleges, were originally founded to provide an education for those shut out of institutions of higher education.

In the 1960s and '70s, many schools for women closed or merged with men's colleges when the doors of formerly all-male colleges opened to women. In the past three decades, the number of women's colleges has fallen from a high of 298 in 1960 to 94 today.

A continuing decline in the college-age population is destabilizing most colleges in the United States. Meanwhile, it leaves many women's colleges gasping for air as they attempt to hold onto their unique market. Only a small percentage of women graduating from high school even consider applying to a women's college.

"Those women's colleges that have made the commitment to remain women's colleges are doing quite well," says Peter Mirijanian, spokesman for the Women's College Coalition.

Survival of the fittest seems to define the battle. Grandes dames such as Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., and Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., are still attracting women; overall enrollment at women's colleges has gained slightly in the past three years.

But the list of women's colleges capitulating to financial pressures and admitting men continues to grow.

Advocates say that all-female colleges provide a nurturing atmosphere where women can excel educationally, socially, and politically without the competition of male students. Critics contend that women should be learning how to work with men in "real-life" situations.

"Women's colleges are not here to shelter women," Mr. Mirijanian says. "We provide something that other colleges don't provide. And it's proven in the results."

Studies show that graduates of women's colleges are overrepresented in leadership positions in the United States. Many of the women in Congress and in major corporate boardrooms are women's college graduates.

"How old are all these women?" asks Susan Rieger, a lecturer in legal studies at Mount Holyoke College and Hampshire College in Massachusetts. "Those women went to college in the '40s, '50s, and '60s when there was no place for them in a place like Yale or Harvard or Amherst or Williams. ... I think that when you look at women's graduates from the late '70s and '80s, you're going to find that the women that go to the coeducational schools will be very well represented."

Mirijanian insists that "the value of a women's college education in 1990 is as valid as it was in 1950. …