For much of American history, colleges were for male students only. So, separate schools were set up for women who wanted a higher education. But 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.
, 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."
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.