Illustration by Arnel Reynon
When Jo Ellen Parker hears the criticism that single-sex education doesn't prepare young people for the real world, she has a ready response.
"I tell them that Hillary Clinton [Wellesley, '69] attended a women's college, and she seems to cope with the real world pretty well," says Parker, the president of Sweet Briar College, which serves 760 female students in a bucolic campus setting near Lynchburg. "We can go down the list of prominent leaders who have gone to women's colleges, and we can document from the outcomes that graduates can indeed cope with the real world — graduate school, politics, the arts — and do just fine."
Separating the boys from the girls seems to be gaining cachet these days, at least in the starting grades. Rules on single-sex education in public schools were relaxed in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education, and now there are more than 500 primary and secondary schools across the country with same-sex classrooms. A decade ago, it was little more than a dozen. Why Gender Matters, a recent book by leading single-sex-education advocate Leonard Sax, also argues persuasively that boys and girls (men are from Mars, remember?) would do better in a learning environment with their gender peers.
But critics of the single-sex model have also been vocal. A paper published last year in Science magazine by eight social scientists, "The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling," argued that the practice reinforced gender stereotypes. The group concluded that "sex-segregated education is deeply misguided and often justified by weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence."
Also: It may leave students unprepared for the real world. "When I began in single-sex education, that was my big concern," acknowledges Nancy Gray, the president of Hollins University, nestled in Roanoke's New River valley and serving 759 female undergraduates. "I wondered, how could a graduate of a women's college enter into a coed workplace and compete with men? What I didn't know then that I know now is that students find their voices here. I've seen that they develop a greater sense of self and self-confidence and greater understanding of others. … If you have that inner core of self confidence and know who you are, and know what you want, you are more able to compete than anybody else."
"There just aren't the same kinds of stereotypes in a single-sex environment that you have in a coed situation," Hampden-Sydney College's Dean of Admissions Anita Garland insists. At the long-standing all-male school in Farmville — founded in 1775, before the American Revolution — "the men are presidents and vice presidents and secretaries, and every student has to fill those positions, so there is less of a stereotype that roles belong to one sex or another."
"You always hear about the drama of attending an all-female college," recent Mary Baldwin College graduate Leeanne Kimble says. She initially had doubts about studying on the Staunton campus, which serves 797 undergraduates. "Females are infamous as far as having confrontations. In high school there is always a lot of tension when it comes to cliques … jealousy and all that stuff."
A triple major in anthropology, international relations and Asian studies, Kimble ended up a believer. "Not having that tension with guys makes it a lot easier to focus. You have more of a partnership with other females rather than being in competition." The experience helped Kimble to mature. Now she feels she is ready for the coed experience (she'll attend the University of Maryland's law school this fall). "I think I speak more confidently now. When I was in high school, I was more shy … now, if I want to say or do something, I feel confident that I can do it."
Outside the Classroom
The threat of a limited social life keeps some prospective pupils from choosing a single-sex college.
"Here's a funny story," says Ryan Carter, who will graduate from Hampden-Sydney next year. "When I first heard that Hampden-Sydney was all male, I kind of looked at my dad and asked him, ‘Why are we even considering this?' " The economics major and captain of the school's baseball team says that, were it not for a full athletic and academic scholarship, he never would have considered a same-sex school.
The Chester native now recognizes the pros and cons of the system. "On the plus side, there aren't as many distractions," he says. "There is already enough to take your focus away because there is so much freedom that you aren't used to in college. When you add the opposite sex to the equation, distraction levels go higher. On the negative side, sometimes, in the classroom, you lack the female perspective on whatever issue it is you are talking about. That can be a negative overall for the student's perceptions of the female opinion or even how we think through problems."
As for the concerns over not having a social life, Carter found out that options weren't as limited as he thought. "On the weekends here, you'd never know this wasn't a coed school," he says. "It hasn't been a problem."
"It's important to remind students that life is coed," Sweet Briar president Parker says. "They will have a lot of choices during their undergraduate years about how much time they want to spend in coed environments."
Hollins president Gray concurs: "When they think about attending a college, they envision it to be a coed institution with weekends centered on football or basketball and things like that. A single-sex college is just out of their common realm of experience. So we have to do a better job about telling people about the incredible opportunities that are available to the right students."
Kelsey DeForest, a rising senior at Hollins, admits that her campus life is different from that of her friends at coed institutions. "But if you go to a women's college, you should know you aren't getting the traditional experience." The political science major often hears concerns from visiting students that they will never see men if they attend Hollins. "I tell them that we are a women's university; we are on a campus that has nothing but young women on it," she notes with a laugh. "Trust me, college-age men will come to us. It is not a concern." She reminds them that VMI, Virginia Tech, Hampden-Sydney, and Washington and Lee are all within driving distance.
"I think that eliminating the distraction of the opposite sex may be important for some students, but I don't think that is necessarily why you should choose your college," says DeForest, who is currently the president of Hollins' Student Government Association. "I think that if you are easily distracted, there are plenty of things to distract you at a single-sex school, too."
Crista Cabe, the vice president for public relations at Mary Baldwin, agrees. She says that the single-sex environment doesn't really eliminate social distractions. "What it does is that it removes them from the classroom. It removes that dynamic from some of the student activities. But you still have many opportunities to connect with other young people." Cabe claims that the focused atmosphere helps to "produce a dynamic where young women see themselves as powerful, as having voices and having the upper hand."
"You are often defined by how the opposite sex thinks of you," says Garland, who has worked at Hampden-Sydney, one of only three non-religious all-men's colleges in the country, for 32 years. "In the single-sex environment, you are defined by how you think of yourself. So there's a little bit more self-discovery, more growing with people of your own sex, and not more of how the opposite sex considers you."
At all-female institutions like Hollins, Gray says, "women dominate and fully participate in classroom discussions, they do the lab work, they form the study groups, they hold all of the leadership positions." She cites the National Study of Student Engagement, which shows a higher level of involvement in academic and extracurricular work among women's college students, as proof that this pays off. "Often women in a coed classroom, not all women but some, will hold back and not participate as fully when men are in the classroom. Without the men, they are more encouraged to take risks, to fully participate, to ask questions, to dream big. They develop a higher level of self-confidence."
Garland points out that "men don't volunteer in coed colleges. Look at it … it's the women who do the volunteering. But here, at Hampden-Sydney, we have young men going to the elementary schools to tutor kids, volunteering on the rescue squad, working with Habitat for Humanity." Why is that? "I think it's because the women will do it in the coed environment, and men can point and say, ‘That's what they do, we don't do that.' But here they've got to do it."
Single-sex students may also get involved in programs and activities they normally would discount because of gender expectations. Garland remembers a telling moment when a Hampden-Sydney faculty art teacher showed off the creativity of her all-male class. "She pulled me aside and said, ‘They don't know they aren't supposed to like art.' " It's the same thing for females, Garland says. "Maybe at an all-women's college they would get into fields that would stereotypically be for men — math, sciences and engineering."
Environment is key, Parker says. "When students arrive on a women's college campus, when they arrive at Sweet Briar, they will often say they are thrilled to be here, and the campus is beautiful, and they are excited about the program, but a women's college? ‘Well, OK.' They accept that part of the deal. For many of them, it's not the primary reason they are here. And yet when you see them as seniors, or talk to them as alumni, they say that it was truly valuable and a very important part of their educational experience."
Examining the Mission
Are one-gender colleges making a comeback, or are they anachronistic holdovers from the 19th century, desperately holding on to relevance?
Certainly their numbers have dwindled in Virginia. "The fact of the marketplace is that only 3 percent of college-age women say they will consider a women's college," Jolley Bruce Christman, then president of the board of trustees at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, and Virginia Worden, interim president, wrote in a 2006 letter published in the Washington Post to explain why the Lynchburg school — now named Randolph College — decided to go coed. "The majority of our own students say they weren't looking for a single-sex college specifically. Most come despite the fact that we are a single-sex college."
For now, Virginia's remaining single-sex colleges are committed to the model. "Our conversations at Hollins revolve about how we can be a successful women's college, not whether to be a women's college," Gray says. She adds that, aside from informal discussions, Hollins has never formally considered coeducation. But she's quick to point out that the university accepts men into its graduate-level classes, which are held on satellite campuses across the state, including one in Richmond.
At Sweet Briar, Parker admits that going coed "has been discussed, and, frankly, I would say every single-sex institution should look seriously at its single-sex mission every, oh, generation or so. From time to time, it's good to review the commitment to that mission and to affirm it."
"It does come up when we develop strategic plans," Cabe says. "But every time Mary Baldwin has looked at coeducation — I've been here for 24 years — we realized we would lose some of our distinctiveness, not only in the quality of the education we offer on campus but also in the marketplace." Like Hollins, Mary Baldwin has a long-standing graduate-studies programs that admits male students.
"Does the issue of coeducation come up? Yes, it does," Garland notes. "And as a recruiter, I'm asked that very often: When is Hampden-Sydney going to go coed? There was only one really serious debate, and that occurred back in 1996. That was the same year that Citadel and VMI were being taken to the Supreme Court for their all-male status, and it was ruled that they had to go coed. Coeducation was discussed here, and it was voted on by the trustees to stay all male."
Meanwhile, the general debate over single-sex schools continues. "The more we learn about human development, the more we learn about best practices in education," Gray says. "There are differences between men and women, but that doesn't mean that they can't achieve the same things. But they get there differently."