SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Converse College is considering co-educational undergraduate programs for the first time in the South Carolina liberal arts school's nearly 130-year history.
President Krista Newkirk believes the school could maintain the women's college experience while admitting male undergraduate students, but some alumni are skeptical, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal reported.
The school said this week it's launching a research effort, approved unanimously by its Board of Trustees in April, to consider the undergraduate proposal. Newkirk said the school will host several town hall sessions to allow current and former students to share their feedback on the idea, and board-appointed committees will also review the possible move.
"We're making sure that we take the time to have these discussions through town hall meetings, focus groups, and individual meetings, to get that feedback and to talk through what this would look like," Newkirk said. "We want to understand how we might do it, how to do it in the best way possible and so people can understand why we're considering making this change."
Newkirk said Wednesday there were 270 single-gender institutions across the country in 1960. Today, there are between 34 and 37 single-gender women's schools left in the United States. Since 2000, college enrollments have increased by as much as 32 percent.
"If you look at enrollment for women's colleges from 2000 until now you'll find they've dropped by 29 percent," Newkirk said. "So what we're seeing is that fewer high school girls are considering single-gender institutions going forward."
Newkirk said young women had told her they question the benefits of single-gender education in a world they consider co-educational. Others attend Converse in spite of the fact it's a single gender school, she said, not because of it.
She said that view generally shifts once students arrive on campus, but described the perception as a roadblock to boosting the college's enrollment, which is approximately 850 undergraduate students.
The increasing costs of higher education put pressure on smaller institutions like Converse, according to Newkirk.
"We're seeing a shift right now, and more challenges and headwinds coming for private institutions," Newkirk said. And so the best planning we can do is advanced planning. We're looking at what's happening in the Northeast and the upper Midwest and knowing there's a big drop in the numbers of high school students graduating and coming to college. We want to make sure we're ready for that."
So what would a potential co-ed Converse College look like? Newkirk said it could be possible to create a women's college experience as a subset within the school's broader co-educational framework.
"You create a living-learning community, much like you have an honors program or some other smaller community you can create within a large institution," Newkirk said. "It would be really intentional and focused on the different aspects of leadership and the core values that Converse has. And maybe there are other things we can add to that as well, as we explore this, like study abroad programs."
She said the goal would be to bring undergraduate student enrollment to 1,100-1,200 students.
Kimberly Law, a 2006 Converse College graduate, said Wednesday the school's leaders should be careful not to disturb a formula that has worked for so many students over the past 130 years. She said she understands the college's need to grow, but said it would be a mistake to stray from the college's founding principles.
"For me, and I know for so many other women, it was about receiving an education that empowered you to go out into the world - one in which your voice had historically not been heard - and use that voice," Law said. "I think for those of us who are speaking out against a possible change, we're doing the very thing they taught us to do in our classes, to fight for what you believe in."
At least one Converse graduate, Morgan Copenhaver, has created an online petition to protest the proposed changes to the school.
"Converse has always been an empowering, safe, and amazing place for women to receive their education," according to Copenhaver's petition. "It is not just a college but a sisterhood that is rich with traditions. Allowing men to attend our undergraduate programs would change all of the traditions for future generations."
For now, Newkirk said the college is focused on the study and feedback process as transparently as possible.
"This is an idea that's in the making," Newkirk said. "And we want to work together to really think about how Converse evolves, what this would look like and how we create that culture going forward. So it's really a time for us to come together.
Information from: Herald-Journal, http://www.goupstate.com/
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