SAINT MARY OF THE WOODS -- On any college campus seeing male students wondering around is typical, but Nathan Mensah is one of just three male students on the St. Mary of the Woods campus.
The school was established as an all-girls school in 1840 and stayed that way until this year. Mensah feels at home on St. Mary’s campus.
“Everyone’s always so friendly and welcoming,” he says.
The transition was easy for Mensah. He already attended a few classes here while working toward a degree at Indiana State University at the same time.
“Once the co-ed decision happened, since I felt more attached to this school, and I now had the option to get the certification and the degree, well I’ll just make my life a little easier.”
Trends In Enrollment
Male students have been able to take courses for certificate programs as well as graduate programs starting in 1985, so according to President Dottie King it’s not a huge change.
The board of trustees made the decision to go fully co-ed in May, but it was part of a discussion that’s been happening for years as the school watched enrollment decline.
“The board looked at this for a full year in the context of a wider question of future viability and strength and increasing enrollment in college and came to the decision that our next step was to become completely coeducational in all of our programs,” King says.
The small private school is dependent on tuition dollars – and therefore enrollment – to operate. Enrollment at the school peaked in 1965 but the numbers have been at the lowest over the past few years.
That’s similar to national trends, taken together the country’s all female colleges have seen a three percent enrollment decline over the last decade.
“Our historic mission to empower women through education was being hindered by the fact that most women wouldn’t consider single gender education.”
Since the 1950s when the courts decided in several cases that single-sex universities violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, many women’s colleges have decided to accept males. There are only around 50 exclusively female colleges left. That’s down from 230 colleges 50 years ago.
Student Sydney Wilderman’s decision to enroll at St. Mary’s three years ago wasn’t influenced one way or the other by the absence of male students on campus.
“The main reason that I did come here was because of the spirit of the place. Just the atmosphere, it’s really cool.”
Concern For The Mission
Some other schools across the country that have gone co-ed experienced a public outcry from students and alums and ultimately a few schools reversed their decisions.
President King was prepared for some disapproval so not long after the trustees announced their decision she began work to form a committee of students, faculty, and staff to work out those concerns.
“The vast majority once we had a dialogue and once they understood the decision and assurances that the love and traditions weren’t going to just go away, they embraced it.”
King also says the school has been keeping a close eye on its three new, male students to make sure their transition to campus is smooth and they feel welcome.
Although there are differences in opinion, Mensah says the body of students is like one big family.
“I think we’re all allowed to have different opinions. That hasn’t really stopped people from being friends even if they disagree on the issue,” he says.