Ten years ago there were 129 men's colleges in the United States. Today there are 104. At first glance, this may seem like a surprisingly high number. Only five of these institutions fall in the category of private liberal arts college, however, as most of the women's colleges do. Of the 99 others, although all but one are private, over half are rabbinical institutes; a third are Roman Catholic seminaries; and a few are military institutions, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
All the Ivy League institutions have chosen to go coeducational. The remaining five private men's colleges are Virginia Military Institute, Citadel Military College of South Carolina, Hampden-Sydney College, Wabash College, and Washington and Lee University.
Lewis Johnson, dean of students at Washington and Lee, says: ''Men's colleges will look at their future in terms of their ability to attract students, both in quality and quantity.
''For the time being, we [Washington and Lee] have chosen to remain single-sex for essentially two reasons: There was no compelling reason to go coeducational and we continue to attract the students we need.
''Washington and Lee has a unique atmosphere which students continue to want. From what I can gather from the students, they want the studious environment the single-sex status provides. Their weekends provide enough opportunity to socialize without having the distraction of coeducation during the week as well.''
Mr. Johnson acknowledged that men's colleges don't have the same compelling raison d'etre that gave rise to many of the women's colleges, but he added: ''I think a certain amount of diversity in higher education has been lost in the rush to go coeducational. It's important to maintain that diversity.''
As for other men's institutions that have gone coeducational, he commented: ''I think you have to judge each college individually. Every college that made that choice [to go coeducational], had its own reasons - some philosophical, some financial.''
Mr. Johnson noted that Washington and Lee last considered going coeducational in 1976 and rejected it:
''Both the alumni and students supported the decision to stay single-sex. The decision to go coeducational is . . . irreversible. The decision to remain single-sex is not. We can always raise the issue again.
''We think Washington and Lee is a unique institution for many reasons - its history, its traditions. Single-sex is only one of them. For now, as long as the market holds, there is no reason to change that.''
He added that the shrinking pool of college-age students over the next decade will challenge all colleges, not just single-sex institutions - and that all institutions will have to make decisions on the same basis, their ability to attract students.