• July 22, 2014

Armed With Data, a Women's College Tries a Transformation

A Women's College Tries a Transformation 1

Matt Roth for The Chronicle

Wilson College, one of only about 45 women's colleges left in the United States, might have faced eventual closure if it did not make drastic changes. Last month it decided to admit men.

Can Wilson College be saved? The answer you get depends on whom you ask.

Its trustees say yes, even though Wilson's numbers look fairly bleak right now, like those of many small liberal-arts colleges. Wilson started the fall semester with only 695 students, expects to run a $3-million deficit on a $20-million budget this year, and has $10-million worth of deferred maintenance.

But on January 13, its trustees approved a series of ambitious recommendations from its president, Barbara K. Mistick, and a commission of faculty and staff members, trustees, alumnae, and students who spent thousands of hours last summer and fall researching ways to secure the college's financial future. Among other changes, the board approved cutting tuition by $5,000, starting a high-profile loan-buyback program, creating new offerings in the health sciences and other career-oriented disciplines, and consolidating some existing programs. The goal: 1,500 students and a deficit-free budget by 2020.

Some alumnae and students, however, insist that the Wilson they love will die unless the trustees rescind a vote approving the most controversial of the commission's recommendations: that the 144-year-old college admit men as full-time undergraduates. Although Wilson has welcomed men to its adult-degree and graduate programs for years, the decision to make the undergraduate college coed has provoked howls of protest and vigils outside of board meetings. "Better Dead Than Coed" signs have even been spotted on the campus.

In part, Wilson's need to reposition itself is a consequence of its own unusual circumstances. It's an outlier even among the 45 or so remaining women's colleges: The others, if they don't have close ties to nearby coed colleges, are either in or near big cities or attract students seeking a conservative, religious culture.

But the changes are also attempts to respond to trends buffeting liberal-arts colleges everywhere. A weak job market has led students and their families to seek career guarantees, and advocates of the liberal arts have had trouble making the case that their institutions prepare graduates for a lifetime's worth of different jobs and assignments. And while colleges' costs continue to rise, families' incomes are largely stagnant, and students are less willing to make up the difference with loans that will leave them cash-strapped for years.

In an unusually public process, Wilson's administrators and trustees have tried hard to make a solid, data-driven case for changes they say are absolutely essential to the college's fiscal future. What they have discovered, however, is that almost no policy discussion nowadays can avoid the kind of name-calling and mistrust that have become staples of Congressional debate, the 24-hour cable-news cycle, and online flame wars.

'Wild Wilson Women'

"When people feel they aren't being treated right, they get loud," a young alumna named Theresa Retz wrote on the college's Facebook page, posting as Taela Dragonfox, an alter ego she uses as an artist. "All of my fellow alums that I have spoken to are outraged at this decision."

The long Facebook thread to which she contributed was itself an indication of how divisive the situation has become—it had more than 80 comments on Wilson's decision to delete a series of earlier Facebook posts because some backers of coeducation found them threatening. Meanwhile, a 1,400-member Facebook group calling itself Wild Wilson Women blocked nonmembers from its page soon after participants began strategizing about how to force the trustees to reverse course and whether to stage a protest during graduation.

That said, the college has no plans to poll either its students or its 8,000 or so alumnae on the coeducation question, and it's unclear how many of either actually oppose it. Mary Ann Naso, vice president for enrollment, cites a telling statistic: Only about one applicant a year is the daughter of an alumna.

Nor do the trustees intend to revisit any of the planned changes. "A number of alums are saying, 'Do what you need to do,'" says Leslie Durgin, a trustee who served as chairwoman of the Commission on Shaping the Future of Wilson College. But Ms. Durgin, a former mayor of Boulder, Colo., who is now a senior vice president at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, says she didn't anticipate "the extent of the feedback" on admitting men.

"I think we gave everyone an opportunity to be engaged," President Mistick says, "though I know some may not like the outcome. This is really about all of us, and there's going to be some noise about that."

Wilson's modest campus, with its mix of Victorian and Collegiate Gothic buildings, has seen turmoil and change before. In 1979 the trustees voted to close the college, which they thought had no viable future, and students and alumnae sued to keep it open. Wilson subsequently added the coed adult-degree program and also an innovative program that lets single mothers attend and live on campus with their children. But enrollment remained flat, and the college mostly lacked the money to renovate or repair buildings.

Wilson's one big capital improvement, the 2009 science center, represents a bet that the college lost: Before the economy collapsed in 2008, the trustees were persuaded to invest money donated for the $25-million building and to take out a loan to pay for it, rather than paying the contractors directly. In the lively prerecession financial market, that sounded like a smart idea, but by the time the building opened, the investments had been largely wiped out and only the loan remained, casting a growing shadow over each successive year's budget. The college is now paying only interest on the debt, but in 2019 it must start making payments of about $1-million a year on the principal.

An Open Process

The debate over coeducation had been building for several months, online as well as in a series of open meetings scheduled by the commission to keep the college community apprised of its progress and to solicit suggestions. As laid out by Ms. Mistick, the commission process was meant not only to take advantage of many of Wilson's best minds but also to bring alumnae and students along for what were clearly going to be tough decisions—especially since the college kept its deteriorating financial situation largely hidden from alumnae until Ms. Mistick became president in July 2011.

She said from the start that everything was on the table, including coeducation—which, once it was an option, may well have been inevitable. Wilson hasn't met its 400-student target for its undergraduate program since 1973, and this year the program began with just 316 students. Still, everyone involved was mindful of protests that erupted in 2011 when Peace College's trustees, with no warning, announced that the North Carolina liberal-arts college would go coed and change its name to William Peace University.

In meetings that were streamed online for Wilson alumnae who couldn't make it to Chambersburg, commission members outlined the challenges Wilson faces as a small-town, tuition-driven college with far too many empty dorm rooms, a library shuttered because of steam leaks, and a field house unimproved since 1966. They talked frankly about data compiled by a consulting firm, Stevens Strategy, that showed where the college's programs do and don't match potential students' interests and how much students would be willing to pay for various offerings.

As the number of hours that commission members spent in meetings ran into the hundreds, PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide emerged suggesting that if the college did not go coed, no combination of other changes could keep it solvent.

Without admitting men, the annual deficit in 2020 would be $2.5-million even if the college added appealing programs, improved facilities, and beefed up marketing, said Michael G. Cornelius, the associate professor of English who led the commission's marketing subcommittee, at an open meeting in November. Too few young women—only 2 to 3 percent—will consider attending a single-sex college, the survey data showed, whereas going coed would actually attract more women to the college than men. Based on the experience of other women's colleges that have admitted men, such as Wells and Hood Colleges, Mr. Cornelius predicted that in 10 years, Wilson would have a healthy enrollment that would be only 30 percent male.

All fall, alumnae and students peppered commission members with ideas, questions, and opinions, but mostly they argued against admitting men. At the November meeting, Maggie Sipps, a senior, read aloud a particularly memorable statement while she choked back tears. "We are comfortable in our classes because we are the majority," she said, while going coed would send a message "that we cannot stand on our own, that we are inferior and incompetent." There are "some things that analyzing data cannot measure," she concluded, to applause.

A solid majority of trustees approved the recommendations last month, however, after a six-week delay so that the president and the commission could supply some additional information. "There are certainly good things to say about single sex-institutions, but we had to look at it from the perspective of what's the best for the financial viability of this institution," says the board chairman, John W. Gibb. A former Sallie Mae executive who is now a managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial-real-estate company, Mr. Gibb describes the bottom line for the college simply: "The market changes, and you have to change with it."

Ms. Durgin, the commission's chairwoman, says Wilson's student population has indeed changed significantly since she was an undergraduate herself. "In 65, when I entered, it was with a lot of students who had wanted to go to Smith or Mount Holyoke," she says. Now, the majority of Wilson students are the first members of their families to attend college, and they and their families are struggling to pay the bills. Tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate living on campus come in just under $40,000 this year, but the majority of students receive some kind of scholarship, and on average, students pay about $10,000 less.

"The other major piece now is that parents and students are saying college should lead to a job," Ms. Durgin says. "We're already a hybrid college, with both a vocational aspect and the liberal arts." She adds that the dean, Mary Hendrickson, "was terrific in saying that we embed the liberal arts in everything we do."

The debate over coeducation has threatened to drown out discussion about the other commission recommendations that won approval from the trustees, even though some of those, too, represent significant changes in Wilson's traditions.

The most unusual is the loan-buyback program, the details of which remain to be set. But the general idea is that if a student completes the undergraduate curriculum in an allotted amount of time, Wilson will buy back up to $10,000 of that student's federal Stafford loans. Not only is the idea unusual enough to help the admissions office market Wilson, but it should also help improve the college's loan-default rates and its retention statistics, which Mr. Cornelius described in November as "minimally 15 to 20 percent lower than they need to be."

The other cost-related change is the $5,000 decrease in the sticker price of tuition, which is $28,745 this year. The plan is to reduce discounting more, so that net revenue will increase. William K. Shoemaker, an assistant professor of education who led the commission's subcommittee on pricing, says his group thought the current sticker price made the college look like a poor value relative to competing institutions, like nearby Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

The trustees also committed to raising spending on facilities, including a renovation of the shuttered 1925 library and improvements in athletic facilities. A late-breaking priority item on the to-do list is a student center, since the temporary library now occupies a favorite student hangout, Sarah's Coffeehouse. Ms. Mistick says students' comments to the commission highlighted the importance of a student center, which "was not on my radar screen."

The other big recommendation was that the college create a suite of Web- and classroom-based health-science offerings, since students planning to go to college rank the health sciences at the top of their career choices. Wilson already has strong science and veterinary-medical-technology majors, and the commission suggested complementing them with an online nursing program and on-campus programs in nutrition, speech pathology, and physical therapy.

Also on the list of possible offerings are a low-residency Master of Fine Arts in choreography, an online associate degree in business, a bachelor's degree in graphic design, and an addition to the education certificates that are already offered. The commission also suggested, and the trustees approved, making it easier for students to transfer to Wilson, spending more on marketing, and hiring an administrator to develop and support nontraditional programs, whether online or on-campus.

"The most daunting challenge will be implementing programs, from the point of view of resources and time," says Mr. Shoemaker. But he says the programs "give us a good shot at thriving," much to the relief of faculty and staff members.

The Size Challenge

Indeed, the recommendations have united almost all of the faculty behind Ms. Mistick, who got a standing ovation at a faculty meeting in December—an event that several professors said was unusual in light of the faculty's history of tense relations with Ms. Mistick's predecessor. "There was more transparency and clarity about the state of the college during the commission process than during the entire decade preceding," says Larry Shillock, an associate professor of English.

For faculty members, he says, a big concern now "is that the college not grow in ways that compromise engagement with faculty." Wilson's current size has drawbacks, of course—particularly because many students leave on weekends—but faculty members can offer students individual attention. "We need to move efficiently from being a too-small college to being a small college," says Mr. Shillock.

He's not the only professor worried about managing growth. Julie Raulli, an associate professor of sociology who directs the women's-studies program, says that with so few students, "You end up going to art openings and dance performances—we see students more fully."

"That makes a difference—showing an interest in your students, not just in what they're doing in the classroom," she says. On the other hand, she looks forward to a larger enrollment that will enliven on-campus life.

As for admitting men, "We're going to lose something," Ms. Raulli says. "I can't put my finger on it—I think this change is going to be very difficult." But she adds, "Men can be feminists too."

That's the hope here, certainly—that Wilson can deftly incorporate male students into the classroom and campus cultures that generations of female students have helped create. Mr. Cornelius, the English professor who wrote the commission's report, says he's read widely about women-centered education in an attempt to define how it differs from education centered on men. The latter he describes as "competitive, self-centered, and self-focused—it's designed only to improve the self, it's focused on success, and it's conformative."

"Women-centered education is something that really rejects those values," he says. "It has three pillars. The first is security—everyone can feel safe to explore their identity as individuals, every individual is respected for who they are. The second is service—your education is not just about you and improving your station in life, but about making sure you extend that privilege to others. The third is success, but not really in the sense of accruing material possessions—it's moral success, ethical success. That old happiness factor."

Mr. Cornelius and other faculty members, male and female alike, say they're fairly sure Wilson can maintain its commitment to those values. "If being women-centered just means we don't let men live in the residence halls, we're really not doing anything," he says, "as opposed to ensuring that our culture respects every individual."

"The paradox is that women-centered classrooms are also good for men," says Mr. Shillock. "Men like it here—that's what they tell us."

As for the complaints from opponents of coeducation, Mr. Cornelius says commission members "wanted to be driven by data and do an enormous amount of study"—and by enormous, he means he contributed at least 650 hours to the effort, including meetings, research, and writing.

From that, he says, "You have to let the narrative unfold as it has to. You're never going to make everyone happy, and that's OK."

Ms. Mistick, whom some alumnae critics have taken to calling "President Mistake," has her own take on the issue: She says that being a college president is not for the thin-skinned.

"The issues for the college are very real. There are deadlines we have to meet out in the future." Deferring the coeducation decision for a couple of years to see whether the other changes would suffice on their own, as some alumnae have asked her to do, "doesn't meet that requirement."

And she knows that the college has, at this point, taken only the first steps toward sustainability—a lot of difficult work lies ahead, and chances are good that not everything will go smoothly.

Still, she says, "I feel very firmly that this was the right process for us. It was messy, though. When you have change you have to deal with the mess at one point or another."

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