Susan Poulson, a professor of history at the University of Scranton who has studied how women’s colleges dealt with the rise of coeducation, sees more “alarm bells” than encouragement for the Girl Scouts in the history of women’s schools. The 1960s brought a new cultural climate in which fewer students gravitated toward single-sex colleges. It was also a trying financial time for many schools. Men’s colleges had to increase their enrollment numbers to stay afloat, and faced with a choice between lowering the caliber of the students admitted and inviting in women, many schools opted for the latter option, leaving the women’s colleges with uncertain futures. Poulson identified three patterns for how women’s colleges, many of them small Catholic schools, contended with this rise in coeducation: Some simply disappeared or were subsumed by a larger or more powerful coeducated institution; a handful managed to retain their identities and thrive; and the remaining institutions went, as she put it, “through tremendous contortions to stay alive.”
Being in an urban environment was key to helping women’s colleges survive, because cities offered bigger and more diverse populations from which the schools could recruit students. A notable example is Notre Dame of Maryland University, which according to Poulson was a sister college of sorts to Loyola University Maryland. When Loyola went coed in 1971, Notre Dame’s enrollment numbers dropped, and so it experimented with new programming, including a weekend college (which drew in middle-aged women), a continuing-education program, and a mentorship program for black students. Since it was located in a big city, the school found what Poulson called a “ready population” for these programs, and the school’s student body began to diversify well beyond its original demographic of the 1930s-50s: predominantly white, Catholic 18-22-year-old women. “It survived by changing its programs to find new populations it could serve,” Poulson said.
Poulson also pointed to physical improvements as critical to some women’s colleges’ success; they often built new science buildings or athletic facilities to remain in demand to prospective students. “Whereas a lot of women’s colleges were always good in the arts,” Poulson said, these renovations often aimed to create “more career-oriented, competitive ... facilities on campus”—facilities, one could argue, that catered to traditionally “male” college offerings.
Even while new programing sometimes brought men to women’s college campuses (graduate programs tended to be coeducational), the women’s colleges that survived were able to hold onto their identities as undergraduate single-sex institutions; with the rise of coeducation among men’s schools (and even of several women’s schools), Poulson said, women’s colleges amped up the branding of themselves as such. The schools had always marketed themselves as spaces for women, but as they struggled they tended to rely on this kind of focus more heavily. “There was simply feminism in the atmosphere of higher education” in the 1970s, Poulson said. And the women’s-only institutions that have been most successful—such as Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Spelman College in Georgia—have continuously marketed themselves as uniquely capable of empowering women and offering them personal career support, often drawing upon their successful alumni of female leaders.