Closing the doors on single-sex education?

Randolph-Macon decides to admit men, and the Washington Post wonders who's next.


Page Rockwell
September 18, 2006 4:00PM (UTC)

There were protests over the weekend at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, following the trustees' recent decision to take the school coed starting next fall. Alumnae and student protesters camped out, sang school songs and held quippy signs with slogans like "'Co-ed' is a four-letter word" and "Co-ed is no-ed," according to the Washington Post. But the school's decision, born of financial necessity and the related necessity of increasing enrollment, has the Post asking, "Is single-sex education still relevant?"

And, well, is it? A statement from Randolph-Macon, which ran as a companion to the Post piece, noted that "the fact of the marketplace is that only 3 percent of college-age women say they will consider a women's college. The majority of our own students say they weren't looking for a single-sex college specifically. Most come despite the fact that we are a single-sex college." The practical arguments are hard to deny: If a single-sex college isn't making enough money or drawing enough academically qualified applicants, and trustees have reason to believe it will be solvent and more competitive if it goes coed, the institution may not have much choice. Plus, for the most part, the specific circumstances that prompted women's colleges into being no longer exist -- few colleges and universities are exclusively male these days, so complementary all-female institutions aren't fulfilling the need they once did.

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But that's not to say they're not fulfilling a need: Current students told the Post of the appeal of an undergraduate experience uncomplicated by the male gaze, and previous Broadsheet coverage of single-sex education has drawn as many responses in favor of the scheme as opposed to it. Proponents argue -- and some research has shown -- that gender makes a difference in learning (though the prevailing view among educators seems to be that factors like parental involvement, teacher experience and adequate school supplies are better predictors of student success). It's easy to empathize with the Randolph-Macon undergrads and alumnae carrying parasols to protest the change (harking back to the sartorial customs of 1891, when the women's college was founded), and mourning the impending loss of archaic traditions like making daisy chains and exchanging gifts during "ring week." Still, even this nostalgia feels a little old-fashioned; the traditions protesters say they'll miss sound like relics of a bygone era more than inherent characteristics of same-sex education.

Which isn't to say single-sex ed is over. Other women's colleges have fared better, the Post reports, in some cases by offering part-time and professional programs to appeal to working women and mothers. And Randolph-Macon may be ensuring its future by going coed, but the move isn't without cost: The Post reports that in response to the coeducation decision, 200 of the school's 700 current students plan to transfer.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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