"We Have No Choice." As Women's Colleges Turn Coed, Will Donors Get On Board?

  sergfear/shutterstock

 sergfear/shutterstock

The fact that colleges and universities are raising staggering amounts of cash makes for great copy, but it papers over big structural deficiencies in the higher ed model like runaway tuition, a shrinking pool of college-age students, and the fact that Americans now owe more than $1.3 trillion—with a "t"—in student loans.

Is it any surprise that college enrollment has declined for a sixth straight year?

While concern around shrinking enrollment hasn't reached anything resembling critical mass across the donor community just yet—after all, some universities are turning away applicants at a record rate—we're nonetheless starting to see the issue emerge in isolated gifts. For instance, the University of Illinois, plagued by dropping enrollment due partly to state budget cuts and tuition hikes, received a critical $150 million lifeline from financier Larry Gies and his wife Beth a few months back. In part, the gift will explore ways that the university can improve access and lower costs in its business programs. 

A more recent example comes to us from Staunton, Virginia, where Mary Baldwin University (MBU) received a $25 million legacy gift from alumnus Bertie Murphy Deming Smith to fund MBU’s endowment to provide "additional income for future investing and expenses." Smith's donation is the largest in MBU's history, eclipsing her own $15 million gift to establish the school’s Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences in 2011.

After two years as a student at the school, Smith went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and an honorary doctor of humanities degree from MBU. She served on the Mary Baldwin University Board of Trustees for 30 years, and is now trustee emerita. Her father founded the Arkansas-based Murphy Oil Corporation. 

Now in her mid-90s, Smith has been MBU’s top donor for more than five decades.

The News Virginian framed her $25 million gift as "a major boon for the university as it works to redefine itself and expand its mission at a time when traditional women's schools are struggling with declining enrollment."

Mary Baldwin University was established 176 years ago as a woman's college. It opened classes to male students in 1977. In 2014, its leaders rolled out more coed-focused programming in an effort to preserve the school's mission. Then, in late 2016, the school announced it would transition to a coed campus for its residential students.

The decision did not sit well with the alumni community. One group, called Boldly Lead, argued that Mary Baldwin was sacrificing its core values at the expense of students who chose an all-female learning environment. (Wilson College, a small women’s school in Pennsylvania, generated similar donor outrage when, faced with shrinking enrollment and tuition revenue, administrators decided to admit male students in 2014.)

Mary Baldwin president Pamela Fox responded that the school would be "purposeful" in preserving the women's college while integrating male students and female students who aren't part of the women's college into campus life.

Meanwhile, Jane Miller, the board chair, got to the heart of the decision. Small private colleges face severe financial challenges, and opening enrollment to roughly half of the population makes good business sense. "I am not spinning anything. I agree with what many of you say about the value of the single-sex experience," she said. "However, we have no choice but to plan for the evolution of the women's college."

Miller's logic underscores a simple market-based reality. Recent data suggests that an overwhelming majority of women simply don't want to attend all-women schools.

Rhona Free, the president at Connecticut's Saint Joseph University (SJU), called attention to this fact after the school announced it would admit undergraduate men starting in the fall of 2018.

"Studies show that less than 1 percent of full-time female college students today attend a women's college and only 2 percent of female high school seniors say they would consider attending a women’s college," she said. "Admitting men will open our doors to 98 percent more women who would otherwise not even consider our high-quality, distinctive educational experience here at USJ."

As far as Mary Baldwin is concerned, an open question here is the extent to which donor revolt translated into reduced giving. If there is a correlation, it would not come as a huge surprise. More than ever, donors have no qualms about withholding cash as a form of protest in response to an administrative action (or lack of action).

Indeed, recent developments have provided concerned MBU donors with even more reason to withhold funds. 

Last September, roughly a year after it announced it would admit male students, the school announced a 23 percent decrease in enrollment. "We anticipated lower enrollment numbers in the effort to go coed in this transitional year, as we’re just getting started,” said Aimee Rose, MDU's vice president of external affairs.

Boldly Lead's president Shannon Sarino was unmoved. "We are concerned that the university said they expected enrollment to drop when the reason they gave was that going coed was going to boost enrollment," she said. "They ask the alumnae for money, help with fundraising help with recruiting, but they’re not giving us the entire picture."

On the bright side, Bertie Murphy Deming Smith's $25 million gift came roughly eight months after MDU announced its decreased enrollment. School officials understandably framed the windfall as a powerful stamp of approval from its most generous donor.

Smith "believes in Mary Baldwin," said president Fox, "and she believes in the multitude of donors who will join her in supporting a transformational Mary Baldwin education for our students."