IS the mission to educate women by themselves an anachronism, since most schools are open to them? And what is the role of women's colleges in a world where women will have to work alongside of men? These questions are raised every time a woman's college goes co-ed. Wheaton College, 40 miles south of Boston in Norton, Mass., is the latest to make that change. Officials announced last week that the college would start admitting men in the fall of 1988 because of declining enrollments and the upcoming dearth of college students.
Women's colleges have seen hard times in recent years. The first women's college opened in the 1830s because there was no place for women in American higher education. But many schools closed or went co-ed in the 1960s when the doors opened to women at formerly all male colleges. Only 100 are left, from a peak of 298 in 1960. Today, Wheaton, like other schools, faces a smaller crop of students, higher costs, and slashed federal student aid. To top it off, only 2 percent of women attend single-sex schools.
But despite the challenges, advocates say that women's colleges fill a vital role: They provide a place for women to grow politically, socially, and educationally, uninhibited by the presence of men.
``It has the effect of drawing women out of themselves and developing them to their fullest potential, and provides an atmosphere where they can achieve positions of leadership uninhibited by the presence of men,'' says Karen Hanlon, a Wheaton alumna who fought the decision to go co-ed.
A report by the Association of American Colleges in 1982 found that in many co-ed classes women tended to speak up less often than men, were called on less often, and received less encouragement and feedback when they did speak up.
But do women's colleges really prepare women for a male-dominated world when they leave school? ``They're not cloistered,'' says Nicole Reindorf, associate director of the Women's College Coalition, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. ``There's a lot of socializing, and 98 percent of the schools have cross-registration with co-ed or men's colleges.''
And there are more role models at women's colleges. It's not unusual to have a faculty ratio of 80 to 20, men to women, at some co-ed colleges, says Mary Metz, president of Mills College, an all-women college in Oakland, Calif. But women's colleges have faculties balanced between women and men.
``What they see every day is men and women working well together, regardless of what position they may hold,'' she says. ``On co-ed campuses, there are fewer opportunities to see women in higher positions. They get the message - sometimes it's not even on a conscious level - that the world is operated by men, and that's the way it should be.''
Going co-ed is not an easy process. Wheaton was wracked with protests for four months. Denny Houghton, '90, who conducted a campus survey that found 86 percent of the students were against going co-ed, says of the decision, ``I am extremely disappointed. I came for the atmosphere of being at a woman's college. And I've only been here for one semester.''
Some students and alumnae are more than disappointed. A lawsuit was filed for fraudulent solicitation and representation during Wheaton's recently completed Sesquicentennial fund-raising drive that raised $26 million, the most in the school's history, to ``educate women to prepare for the 21st century.'' Another, filed the same day, is a class-action suit by parents and current students for breach of promise. There are also reports of alumnae not sending in unpaid pledges or of writing the college out of their wills.
Not all women's colleges are taking the co-ed path. Russell Sage College, in Troy, N.Y., came to the same crossroads as Wheaton and opted recently to stay single-sex, feeling that it would be more distinctive to be a women's college than just another four-year liberal arts college, according to the director of public relations, Coleen Paratore.
And although women are now free to attend formerly men's colleges, enrollment at women's colleges has increased by 25 percent in the last decade, according to a study by the Women's College Coalition. Enrollments at Mills, Smith, and Wellesley were up last year. Wheaton, on the other hand, had seen a 13 percent drop in enrollment since 1981.
Regardless of whether they choose to admit men or stick with women, the shrinking pool of high school graduates is forcing all women's colleges to examine their mission and outreach. They're hiring public relations firms, recruiting nationally and internationally, adding courses in traditionally male subjects like business and science, developing marketing strategies to lure older students, and focusing on what makes them unique.
Wheaton plans to separate itself from the pack by trying to build a new model of co-education. ``We need a new model, neither male- nor female-oriented, through which men and women together can reshape society's institutions, combining their unique strengths to achieve shared, common goals,'' says Alice F. Emerson, president of Wheaton. Instead of having a separate women's studies program, the college promotes gender balance in the curriculum by incorporating research on women in introductory courses.
But some are skeptical. Mary Ann Marsh, a Wheaton alumna and a founder of The Opportunity for Women's Education is Our Legacy (TOWEL), which believes Wheaton trustees have thrown in the towel for their decision to go co-ed, says, ``What 17-year-old boy is going to say, `Gee, I want to go to a school with a gender-balanced curriculum; where I can learn about women's contribution in physics?'''