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