At Hood, revival is in the male

Newly coed Frederick college has turned around its decline

August 25, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

FREDERICK -- Five years ago, this 50-acre campus of red brick, white columns and leafy quadrangles was the very picture of timeless collegiate charm - and in real danger of extinction.

Hood College, a private all-women's school founded in 1893, had suffered years of plummeting enrollment. Whole dormitory floors lay vacant. The college's endowment was bleeding millions of dollars annually.

This week, Hood welcomed its largest freshman class in decades to a lively campus abuzz with students. There were long lines in the new Barnes & Noble bookstore and oversubscribed dorms - about a third of them now inhabited by male students.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 1A Saturday about Hood College incorrectly reported the age of freshman John Boasi. He is 17.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"We've had record enrollment three years in a row now," said a beaming President Ronald J. Volpe, who persuaded Hood's board of trustees to take the coeducational plunge. "It's no longer a fluke."

Though a small number of male commuters have taken classes at Hood since the 1970s, Hood officials and faculty credit the school's decision to let undergraduate men live on campus starting in 2003 as the key to its renaissance.

Hood's coed transition remains fresh in the minds of administrators and faculty, but it's not an issue for many in its current crop of students.

As he settled into his first-floor dorm room in Smith Hall this week, freshman John Boasi of New Jersey said he learned of Hood's all-female past from a family friend after his application was accepted.

"I wasn't bothered by it," Boasi, 19, said with a shrug. Nor is he put off by the 2-1 female-to-male ratio on campus. "One girl for each arm," he said as his mother rolled her eyes.

Boasi's roommate, Nick Spicer of Charlottesville, Va., said he, too, had been unaware of Hood's single-sex roots and was "indifferent" to that history. "I came to play lacrosse," Spicer, 18, said.

It's not an accident that many new students don't think of Hood as a former sanctuary of women's education.

In "rebranding" Hood, Baltimore-based marketing consulting firm BMWW was hired "not to announce that they've become a co-ed institution," said partner R. Gerard Willse III. "It was more about getting people to become aware of Hood as a coed institution."

Nationally, fewer than 60 women-only colleges remain in the U.S. today. There were about 300 in 1960, according to St. John's University law professor Rosemary Salomone, who has studied single-sex education. Goucher College in Towson has been coed for two decades. The College of Notre Dame of Maryland is the state's last remaining women's college.

Where Hood once competed with the dwindling number of women's colleges, it now vies for students with nearby McDaniel College and fast-growing public campuses such as Towson and Salisbury universities. About 80 percent of students are Marylanders.

Hood has delivered its new motto, "A Great Place to Be Smart," in an aggressive direct-mail campaign targeting students who fit its previous average student profile of a 3.5 high school GPA and roughly 1100 combined score on the SATs.

Though the campus desperately needed an infusion of tuition revenue to stay afloat, Volpe said he decided early on not to make it easier to get in.

"As I talked to presidents at other [former all-women's] schools, in the privacy of their office they did admit that to get this coed thing rolling quickly you may have to lower your admissions standards," Volpe said. "We resisted that right off the bat."

Many students said they became aware of Hood only after receiving unsolicited offers of merit-based scholarship money. Among the tiny college's attention-grabbing inducements is to offer progeny of Hood alumnae a first-year tuition bill identical to their mother's or grandmother's.

That's partly what lured Jenny Harper of Centreville to Hood this year. She ate lunch in the campus dining hall Thursday with her mother, Janice Harper, whose 1979 freshman year tuition of $7,900 will be passed onto Jenny. By comparison, regular Hood tuition for the 2007-2008 year comes to about $25,000; that doesn't include room and board.

Janice Harper said she was "very upset" when she heard that her alma mater was going coed, but she accepted the change, with a heavy heart, as a sign of the times.

"I'd much rather see it go coed than get shut down," Harper said. She looked around the newly painted dining hall, filled to capacity with families of first-year men and women, and smiled wistfully. "It was a wonderful school, and being all-women promoted women as leaders and having self-confidence."

But had Hood remained all-female, her daughter wouldn't have followed in her footsteps. "I don't think I would have attended if it was all women," said Jenny, a freckled 17-year-old who plans to study math. "They can get catty."

To offset generous scholarship packages, Hood has steadily increased its tuition by several percent each year, Volpe said, effectively lowering its "discount rate," or the discount in tuition the average student receives.

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