A glimpse at the difficult choices some Women’s Colleges are making in order to survive COVID-19

Illustration by Piper Hudspeth Blackburn

From canceled commencements to shortened semesters and online classes, COVID-19 has transformed the lives of college students. Even if they return to school in the Fall, they’re likely to miss out on big orientation celebrations or football games, as ordinary collegiate pastimes are put on hold in the name of public health.

Yet, students like Maya Stevenson at Columbia College, a women’s college in South Carolina, will face an even more transformed reality in the fall: co-education.

In August 2020, the  institution will allow men into in-person, daytime classes for the first time in its 166-year-long history. While this transition was originally slated for 2021, school leadership announced in April that the change would be made earlier due to the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all for the school to go co-ed,” said Stevenson, who is a rising senior. “But, after hearing about it and talking to faculty, it really made it seem like this was kind of like a last resort. So it’s either we go co-ed or we don’t know if we can continue to stay open at all.”

Even before the pandemic, small private colleges were showing signs of financial struggle. In the past eight years, enrollment nationwide has fallen about 11%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Women’s colleges, which have experienced enrollment declines since the 1960s, have not been immune to this trend. In the past 15 years, more than ten of them have transitioned to coeducation. In 2007, the former Interim president of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College , Virginia Worden, cited enrollment and financial challenges as the primary reason for the transition in a Washington Post op-ed.

“Our enrollment problems are not going away, and we compete with both coed and single-sex schools,” she wrote, joined by Jolley Bruce Christman, president of the college’s Board of Trustees.

“These market factors affect our financial realities. We must offer more aid to attract students, and we are using a large portion of our endowment each year to balance our budget.”

For women’s colleges already struck with enrollment complications, a global pandemic exacerbates these challenges. For instance, students may opt to attend college closer to home in order to reduce the financial hardship of going out of state for school. While some students could delay school entirely, others may refuse to pay regular tuition prices for online instruction.

A decline in enrollment, coupled with reduced funding from private and public sources, as well as decreased investment returns, is a recipe for closure for schools that were particularly vulnerable before the pandemic.

The Challenges that Women’s Colleges Face

“COVID-19 has presented all of our members with staggering revenue losses,” said Emerald Archer, Director of the Women’s College Coalition, an association of over 30 women’s colleges in the United States and Canada.

Archer, who is also a faculty member at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, California, clarified that the WCC does not speak on behalf of its member institutions and each member college faces different challenges during this time. Still, she maintained that more federal relief funding for women’s colleges is necessary to support their student populations.

“Our demographic is so specific, in many cases,” said Archer. “We’re serving first generation college students and minority students, women of color…[and]  that money should be put aside to ensure that these universities and colleges continue to thrive into the future.”

Women’s colleges as a whole boast more diverse student bodies. For instance, around two-fifths of Columbia College’s student body is black. At the nearby University of South Carolina Columbia Campus, only 9% of students are black, with a total of less than 20% of students of color, according to data from the Department of Education.

At some women’s colleges, students of color outnumber white students. At Wesleyan College and Agnes Scott College, located in Georgia, white students make up less than half of enrolled students. More-selective, northern Women’s Colleges like Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Smith, boast student bodies with around half students of color.

Southern women’s colleges like Wesleyan and Agnes Scott also educate a large proportion of students that receive Pell Grants, or federal funding that helps low-income students pay for college. The percentage of Pell Grant recipients at those schools ranged between 40 to 60% in 2018.

If Stevenson, who is African-American, and her fellow students do not return in the fall, Columbia College would lose a significant source of funding: two-thirds of the college’s revenue comes from tuition and fees.

Faced with this reality, Stevenson sees Columbia College’s recent decision as a means of survival.

“Personally I’d rather see the school I love stay open…and maybe we can open the eyes and ideals of men coming into that kind of understanding how we think and how we feel, than college be shut down completely,” she said.

A New Era For ‘Health Leadership’

Not all women’s colleges are going co-ed to solve enrollment challenges. In April, Salem College, located in North Carolina, announced that the institution would change its educational focus to “health leadership.”

A letter from McDara P. Folan, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees, defends the decision, citing that 34% of Salem’s student body is currently enrolled in health-related programs of study.

Salem College, founded in 1772, is the oldest women’s college in the American south. (Wikimedia Commons)

“This distinctive focus will attract young women who want to lead in health-related professions, assuring Salem’s viability as a woman-focused institution in the competitive world of higher education.”

The focus would enable Salem students to pursue fields beyond medical practice as well, ranging from health policy and administration to bioethics and epidemiology.

Like other women’s colleges, Salem College has struggled with enrollment in the past decade. Eight hundred and forty two students were enrolled In the fall of 2018, compared to 1,165 in 2012.

In 2018, “a lower than expected incoming freshman class headcount” contributed to financial losses, according to data reported to the Department of Education. That same year, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges placed the college on financial probation. The probation was lifted in 2019.

Julia Herrera, who graduated Salem College in May 2019, recalls that time of uncertainty.

“The school had to bounce back from that,” she said.

While Herrera is confident that Salem College could recover from future financial losses from the pandemic, she remained hesitant to believe that the new changes would help increase enrollment and retain students at the same time.

“I feel like that’s just going to influence students to leave even more,” she said. “Salem might not be people’s first choice when it comes to the new program.”

Herrera hadn’t planned to attend a women’s college at first, but chose to attend when the school gave her a significant amount of financial aid. While a student, she appreciated how the school provided her freedom to express herself, and she enjoyed how “everyone was on the same page, regarding women’s rights.” This is an experience she wants future Salem students to have, despite the pressures of a COVID-19 world.

“I’d want people to experience going to a [woman’s college] and I wouldn’t want that school to suffer financially.”

Salem College and Columbia College did not immediately respond for comment.

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