Going coed pays off for Hood College

Applications increase at school in Frederick

April 20, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- When the leaders of Hood College made the decision in October to start admitting men to the 110-year-old women's college this fall, they braced for the worst.

After all, they had heard the warnings from other small women's schools that had made the switch to coeducation. Be ready, others said, for resentful alumnae, a drop-off in private giving, volatility in applications as the world adapts to the school's new status.

But something funny has happened on the road to coeducation in Frederick: The transition has gone smoothly.

At a time when most private colleges have seen outside contributions drop precipitously because of the poor economy, Hood has seen a 20 percent increase in annual giving this year.

Even more encouraging has been an 82 percent increase in applications to the school, which has been operating well under capacity for years. The vast majority of the increase has been from women, suggesting that, as college leaders hoped, coeducation would be a draw, not a deterrent, for college-bound women.

The increases in giving and applications are a relief for college officials, who took the leap in October to overhaul the school's identity.

"What's really remarkable is not the progress we've made but ... that we're trying to turn around an institution in the worst possible environment," said President Ronald J. Volpe, referring to the economy. "It's really kind of amazing to see the progress -- it's not supposed to work that way."

Volpe, who arrived on campus 18 months ago, believes he knows the reason for the generally positive reaction to the decision. He and other officials have, he said, taken pains to be blunt about the motivation behind the move: that the college risked going out of business if it did not do something remarkable.

Alumnae, staff and students were told the college has been on very shaky ground for several years, as the demand for small women's colleges continued to diminish. Two years ago, the freshman class was 109 students, barely a third of the target of 300. Whole wings of the college's handsome brick dorms stood empty.

For years, the school has had to dip into its endowment to balance its books, raising the fear that it might run out of money. Rumors circulated of a possible takeover of the campus by the state university system.

Hearing this, many alumnae who wanted their alma mater to remain a women's college decided that it was even more important that Hood remain a college, period. Many, in turn, opened their checkbooks to help ease the transition.

This forthright approach stood in contrast, Volpe said, to that of other women's colleges going coed. Not wanting to acknowledge their financial troubles, they tried to wreathe the decision in philosophical terms, saying women might learn better in coeducation -- an assertion many of their alumnae contested.

"We said, `We're just going to go out there and be honest,'" said Volpe, who has visited alumnae in 28 states since becoming president. "We told them, `It's about Hood's survival.' It was an attention-getter."

To be sure, disappointment remains on campus that the school has to relinquish a large part of its identity. Students who went to Hood because they wanted a women's-only environment worry the school will lose traditions of "sisterhood," such as the Big Sis-Little Sis mentoring program for new students.

"I liked the idea of being at a women's college, of not having the distraction of guys around," said M.J. Swicegood, a freshman communications major from Glen Burnie. "I liked being able to go to class in my pajamas. Hopefully I still can do it."

Others are resigned to the change, saying they believe the college's claims about its financial duress. And, they note, the college likely will retain a feminine tone for years -- the school has received about 150 applications from men this year and expects about 60 to enroll in the fall.

The school has accepted some male commuter students for several years, so the change should not be too jarring.

"They're going to want to keep everyone comfortable, so they're going to do things very gradually," said Michelle Donati, a junior communications major from Arizona.

Although Hood is expecting small numbers of male boarders at first, college officials are working to prepare for their arrival. Some rooms might need to be retrofitted to make space for larger beds. Some dormitories might need to be reconfigured to block off men's living areas.

Five men's sports teams are being organized: tennis, golf, swimming, cross country and basketball. With the exception of basketball, all will allow male students to compete individually if not enough sign up to field a full squad.

Faculty members are preparing for the changed classroom dynamics of having more men. And, they are looking forward to having more students in their classes.

"This way, you won't have two people in a lab [section] or classes of just eight. We'll have more interesting discussions," said Susan Ensel, an organic chemistry professor.

Changes at Hood are not limited to the arrival of men. To right the school's finances, Volpe has trimmed staff and persuaded the faculty to teach an extra class each year -- seven instead of six. Most senior administrators have been replaced.

Even with economizing and the surge in giving and applications, Volpe cautioned, the college is far from where it wants to be financially. That will not happen, he said, until it has several years at full capacity -- and until more alumnae decide to give to support the new Hood.

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