A Bastion of All-Male Education Goes Co-Ed

The "cowboy scholars" of elite Deep Springs College have voted to end single-gender admissions. Is it time for Smith and Bryn Mawr to do the same?

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In the high desert of California, 41 miles from a town with any shops or restaurants to speak of, sits a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm that hosts the campus of Deep Springs College. The students--28 men, all on full scholarships--spend two years there, with few rules they do not write for themselves. The college is self-governed and self-contained, and is by all accounts (there are many) a spectacular collective of the ruggedly intelligent, up by sunrise to maintain the grounds and tend to their academic responsibilities (among them, hiring faculty and overseeing admissions).

Deep Springs has long been an American curiosity, not only because of its impressive curriculum but also because of what might seem to be an outmoded all-male program. And then, this past weekend, by a secret ballot among the board of trustees that came out 10-2, the strongest bastion of men's higher education voted to become co-ed.

Not that this will change all else that makes Deep Springs the fascinating aberration it has been since 1917, when it was founded by a jack-of-all-trades named Lucien Lucius Nunn. The school has no plans to increase its student population, or to cut back on farm chores.

Nonetheless, the men of Deep Springs are now facing the same kinds of existential questions that most college boys did decades ago. As two students wrote in a statement, "Naturally, the student body is still processing the ramifications of this change. While we are all eager to aid the college in the transition to coeducation, we acknowledge that certain aspects of the Deep Springs experience will be lost along with the single-sex policy."

Only a handful of single-sex schools remain in the United States, and there is a far more satisfying array of options for women than men. Most women's colleges were founded in the mid-to-late 1800s, about one hundred years after Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. These private schools initially catered to the daughters of wealthy families, to further polish their already-high breeding.

Some women's colleges eventually opened up their admissions to male students. Vassar, one of the original Seven Sisters, went co-ed in 1969, and Radcliffe became an institute of Harvard. But the other five persist as highly sought-after all-female institutions. Wellesley makes consistent appearances in the top ten of the U.S. News & World Report rankings; Smith and Bryn Mawr make the top 25; and with a 25 percent acceptance rate this year, Barnard is the most selective of the bunch.

In contrast, the preeminent colleges that once accepted only male students weren't founded specifically to enhance masculinity. They were simply the nation's best colleges. During the 1960s, feminists began clamoring for entry into these elite schools, and the fact that women were welcome at nearby "sister" institutions was no longer enough. Women wanted the right to the best education possible--not only the best available to their own sex. As a result, nearly all of the nation's male-only colleges have been co-ed for decades. (The last Ivy to go co-ed was Columbia, in 1983; a year earlier, it had called single-sex education "an anachronism," according to an article published in Time.)

The few remaining four-year men's colleges don't carry the same prestige as their female counterparts. Hampden-Sydney College, located in northeastern Virginia, has, according to its website, been "forming good men and good citizens since 1776." (Puzzlingly, the school was founded in 1775.) It made the U.S. News top 100 for the first time this year. There's also Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically black men's institution with an admissions rate of about 64 percent, and Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, which admits 56.35 percent of applicants. Deep Springs is more selective, but it does not offer baccalaureate degrees, and most of its students transfer to elite co-ed schools after completing the program.

Deep Springs president David Neidorf says he never saw the college as deliberately single-sex. "We don't emphasize masculinity or learning needs particular to men; it's a unique and isolated college that has been single-sex by tradition rather than any identifiable educational or curricular focus," he explained.

In fact, the all-male campus has allowed students to set aside social norms associated with their sex. A New Yorker profile of Deep Springs, published in September 2006, quotes the wife of an alumnus:

In an environment where there are no women, men necessarily do "womanish things"... In the time that my husband was there, he was a cook and an orderly, so he was basically cooking and cleaning. For two years, he performed both physical tasks and emotional tasks that were "female"--being a good friend, listening and crying--and I think it helped removed some of the gendering from those things.

Many Deep Springs alumni have retained an attachment to this experience. The chairman of the Deep Springs board of trustees, Dave Hitz, wrote:

In letters and conversations, many alumni described the value to them of an all-male environment: it provided a time for introspection, for maturing, for especially strong camaraderie, and for reflection on the meaning of being a man. I felt this myself. The battle for mixed-sex schools, workplaces, and clubs has mostly been won, and society is becoming more accepting of people wanting some time in single-sex environments, so some argued that now is not the time to change. We wrestled with this. In the end, most trustees regretfully concluded that there will be a loss, but that Nunn's focus on leadership and service justifies the change.

Deep Springs began to formally consider admitting women in March of this year, but according to Neidorf, the topic has been frequently discussed for at least 30 years. In 1994, after reviewing an application from a woman, Deep Springs maintained its male-only admissions policy by a close vote. Neidorf says that there was no particular event or reason that triggered the board's decision to accept female students this time around, aside from the college's long-term review of admissions policy.

Some have wondered if the school had financial motives for going co-ed. In 1998, an educational nonprofit called the Telluride Association, also founded by Nunn, helped Deep Springs renovate its main building. From the beginning, Telluride reserved the right to ask Deep Springs for compensation in 2019.

But later on, the Telluride Association, which has both male and female members, decided to make the terms a bit more stringent. Its bylaws now state that if Deep Springs remains single-gender in 2019, Telluride must demand repayment. According to Neidorf, the college put financial policies in place to ensure it could make the payment, and emphasized that the arrangement with Telluride "had absolutely no role in the decision to go co-ed."

If anything, Neidorf says, concern for fundraising has hindered the college's ability to go co-ed in the past, for fear of turning off loyal alumni. But attitudes have changed, and after months of conversation with Deep Springers and a retreat held for the board of trustees, the decision was made to include women in the group that Nunn called "the few." When the board interviewed five past presidents of the college, along with Neidorf, all of them agreed Deep Springs should start to admit women.

With long-time holdouts like Deep Springs finally going co-ed, is it time for colleges like Smith and Bryn Mawr to reconsider their single-gender admissions? It's no longer a struggle for women to get a good education. Women represent 57 percent of both enrollment and bachelor's degrees, and the presence of women in graduate school programs continues to increase.

Many alumnae of women's colleges insist that all-female classrooms still play an important role. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned to her alma mater, Wellesley, she told students that "in so many ways this all-women's college prepared me to compete in the all-boys' club of presidential politics." Yet as a Smith graduate, Wendy Kaminer, wrote for this publication in April 1998:

In addition to assumptions about female learning and relational styles, proponents of all-girls schools rely on social science to support the claim that segregation by sex fosters achievement in girls. "Studies show ..." is the usual lead-in to any defense of single-sex education. In fact studies do not show that girls fare better in single-sex schools. "There does not seem to be research support for this perspective," the sociologist Cynthia Epstein politely observes. Epstein, the author of Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender, and the Social Order (1988), adds that there is no consensus among psychologists as to the existence of psychological or cognitive differences between the sexes, and that the evidence for the need for single-sex education and the justice of single-sex schools is highly equivocal.

Viscerally, this point of view might irk many readers, especially female ones. But even as women continue to struggle for equality in nearly every other arena, the educational options for women have never been better. Wollstonecraft might have especially appreciated the kind of education Deep Springs provides: in 1792, she wrote of the need "to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body." The women who find themselves at Deep Springs will have a unique opportunity to test themselves on both counts. Unless, of course, the idea of baling hay at 4:30 a.m. does not appeal.