When Wilson College in Chambersburg voted to go coeducational last year, officials at the traditionally all-female school blamed low enrollment and financial straits for their decision. In the process, they ignored the innovative work being done at women's colleges across the country.
"Many women's colleges, in fact, are thriving in large part because they have thoughtfully and deliberately recommitted to preserving their distinctive status and have done so in ways that are innovative and imaginative," Patricia Mitchell, chair of the board of trustees of Notre Dame of Maryland University, recently wrote.
Many Wilson alumnae wholeheartedly agree with Mitchell. We believe the school has faltered because the current and past administrations have not facilitated the kind of deliberate recommitment to women's education that Mitchell is talking about.
Wilson's board of trustees voted on Jan. 13, 2013, to make all programs fully coeducational. (The adult learning and graduate programs already include men.) If implemented, their decision will end Wilson's undergraduate residential program for women, which forms the core identity of the college.
Before moving ahead with the transition, trustees and the administration were required under state law to amend the college's articles of incorporation, file them with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and wait for department approval of the fundamental changes.
Instead of waiting, however, Wilson's president and board immediately began to recruit undergraduate male students, hire coaches for men's sports, prepare dorms to accept male students for fall 2014, and advertise the school as coeducational.
A group of alumnae organized the Wilson College Women and filed letters of protest with the Department of Education. In response, the department organized a public hearing in Harrisburg for today. I am proud to be one of four alumnae delivering testimony on behalf of Wilson College Women.
As a private institution operating a women's college for nearly 150 years, Wilson has offered a distinctive higher education option, contributed to the development of women leaders, and benefited the state and the local community. Both female and male students should have choices for higher education, including the option of attending a single-sex college that would help them prepare for meaningful roles in their personal and professional lives.
Many studies indicate that, compared with their counterparts at other schools, women's college alumnae more frequently graduate in four or fewer years, earn graduate degrees at higher rates, and achieve leadership roles in their professions at higher rates. Why? Because, as graduates of women's colleges, they had leadership opportunities, received individualized attention from faculty, and developed an expectation of personal success. For these graduates, the totality of their educational experience at college carries them confidently and successfully through the rest of their lives.
As reported by CollegeStats.org, "There are still plenty of reasons to explore women's colleges as an option, particularly when it comes to honoring the objectives around which they were founded - lessening the gender gaps and ensuring the safest, healthiest, most supportive spaces where women can learn. . . . To de-emphasize these schools in favor of traditionally coeducational campuses would be to deny female students opportunities that might work best for their personal and professional needs."
Wilson College should take a path that creatively and effectively continues to offer empowering opportunities to young women.