Monday, January 22, 2007

Hell Hath No Fury

Last September, during my guest stint at Catallarchy, I noted in passing that Randolph-Macon Woman's College (shouldn't that be Women's College, btw? It's just always bugged me) has decided to end its 114 years as a single-sex institution. Beginning in the fall of 2007, the college, to be known as Randolph College (since there's already a Randolph-Macon College), will begin admitting men. The decision was not all that widely hailed by alumnae, who, as I also noted, threatened to sue the college.

So why do I care about any of this? Well, you see, I'm a Hampden-Sydney graduate. And for those of you who aren't aware of my outstanding alma mater, H-SC is one of the last remaining all-male liberal arts colleges in the U.S. As it happens, H-SC is also located about 45 minutes from R-MWC. I spent many a night there (most of them illegally, thanks to their irritatingly-strict visitation policy), most of them with my then-girlfriend, now-ex-wife.

Anyway, courtesy of that same ex-wife alumna, I received a notice that said lawsuit against R-MWC will get underway quite soon. A group of alumnae has founded a non-profit corporation, (Preserve Educational Choice, or PEC -- as if R-MWC is threatening all single-sex education everywhere for all time...sheesh) collected $200,000 from pissed off women, and hired a big law firm. They've also put together a study purporting to show that the decision to go co-ed was unnecessary. I've skimmed the 47-page report (their cover letter notes that they put the thing together in a month, so I'd say that skimming is about what it merits).

The report itself is, well...how about an analogy? As a political consultant, I got to read all sorts of research reports. These were books put together to tell us all about either our candidate or our candidate's opponent. To say that the information contained therein was cherry-picked is probably an insult to all the honest cherry-pickers out there. My boss repeatedly emphasized that we weren't hired to get at the truth; our job was to present our version of the truth. Ours was not to educate; it was to persuade. I guess my point is that reading the PEC report was just like being back in D.C.

To cite just one (of many) examples: R-MWC, citing the fact that just 3% of women SAT takers signal willingness and/or interest in single-sex colleges, has asserted that there aren't really enough highly-qualified women who want to attend, thus resulting in an overall decline in the quality of the applicant pool and hence in the quality of the student body (not the best of news if you're a current student, eh?). PEC counters by pointing out that 3% of women SAT takers translates to some 31K women whereas women's colleges have total enrollments of only about 13K women. So obviously the college is wrong -- there are plenty of potential applicants. Right?

Except that PEC doesn't actually mention that those 31K students are nationwide, whereas most of R-MWC's actual students come from just a handful of states (mainly VA, NC, and GA). Now I'm not sure of this, having not just spent a whole month studying the issue, but quick check of the U.S. Census Bureau, combined with some back-of-the-envelope math reveals that the populations of Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia comprise around 8.6% of the U.S. population. Assuming that college-age populations are roughly in line with overall population and that women who are open to single-sex colleges are roughly even distributed, that would leave all of about 2500 students in the relevant areas. Another quick check reveals that the four women's colleges in VA (all located within about 2 hours of one another) currently enroll about 3000 students. Suddenly it's not quite the seller's market any longer.

Other assertions are equally silly. The claim that the College's Honor Code will go down the drain when men come along? That's based on nationwide statistics. It also ignores that R-MWC's Honor Code was more-or-less copied from hugely-successful honor codes at nearby men's colleges such as Hampden-Sydney, Washington & Lee, UVA, and VT. The latter three are, of course, coed now, but weren't back when their honor codes were first put into place. Certainly the men haven't ruined the honor system at any of these schools. Getting honor codes to work is a matter of finding students who will buy into the system; men won't automatically wreck them. Besides (and yes, this is purely anecdotal), I've found that among my students, the women cheat at about the same rate as the men.

Look, don't get me wrong here. I'm a big fan of single-sex education. In fact, I'm far more of a fan of single-sex women's education than I am of single-sex men's education. Women's colleges produce a far higher percentage of science and math majors than do coed schools. They produce women who are more assertive, more likely to assume leadership roles after college, and higher rates of postgraduate studies. These are all good things. It's not entirely clear to what extent women's colleges are the cause of such things (it could be a case of self-selecting). But as long as they are doing what they are doing, then I'm all for continuing it. And yes, I'll be sad to see R-MWC change its character. But the fact is that private schools have to compete on the open market. And R-MWC isn't competing all that well. Other Virginia women's colleges are improving while R-MWC is moving backward. That's sad, but it's a fact. It's losing money and losing prestige. The market has spoken, and the verdict is not so good.

Is it possible that R-MWC could re-market itself and thrive. Sure. That would require dipping way into its endowment (the College is currently operating in the red, so it would have to use its endowment as operating capital; I'm no business expert, but that strikes me as being a bad sign). And the strategy is pretty risky. The numbers aren't nearly as hopeful as PEC makes out, and it's not like lots of really good, budding intellectual young women are all that excited about moving to a town that is pretty seriously dominated by Jerry Falwell and his fundies. It just strikes me that suing a school that is making a dramatic change because it is losing money is, well, somewhat counterproductive. Perhaps the alumnae in question might have used its $200K to fund a new marketing campaign. Or to offer some scholarships in order to land a few women who otherwise would have headed off to UVA or Chapel Hill. Or to hire a few splashy, big-name faculty members.

OTOH, the other day, my four-year-old has decided to attend "Mommy's college, not Daddy's." I'm certain that Matthew will make Randolph College proud.

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