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January 3, 2022

Four years after admitting men for first time, USJ sees steady undergrad enrollment growth

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free inside Mercy Hall at the college’s West Hartford campus.

The number of all-women colleges in the United States stood at more than 100 in 1961.

Today, there are less than 50 with that number expected to shrink further in the years ahead, experts said.

While some elite, well-known all-women colleges — Mount Holyoke, Smith, Barnard College of Columbia University, and Wellesely — may never go extinct, lesser-known institutions have faced hard times in recent years related to declining enrollments and greater competition.

Those market forces led West Hartford’s University of St. Joseph in 2018 to admit men in its undergraduate programs for the first time in its then-85-year history. (The school did admit male graduate students prior to 2018.)

Rhona Free, USJ’s president for six years, said that while the school was on a strong financial footing, going co-educational would increase enrollment and bring on to campus more opportunities for both sexes.

So far, the strategy has worked out. Over the last four academic years, USJ has increased its undergraduate enrollment by nearly 10% (with men now making up nearly a quarter of the school’s undergrad population), at a time when small, private colleges around the country have stagnated or shrunk.

“The main reason to go co-ed was to offer more opportunities to our women undergraduates. With the number of women undergraduates we had as a women’s-only institution there were some programs and co-curricular activities that we couldn’t support with that number of students,” Free said. “We wanted to offer undergraduates more opportunities and the way to do that was to offer a co-ed education.”

New programs

Out of 906 total USJ undergraduate students on campus, 207 are now men. (Enrollment of women — currently at 699 pupils — has declined slightly since the school moved to a co-ed campus.) It took several strategic steps to recruit men, Free said, including adding clubs, activities, sports and more courses.

For example, the school added new majors like computer science, digital media and health science.

“What attracts men to a college that just [started to accept] men? Athletics is a factor,” said Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy for the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. “Men are also typically attracted to business and science majors and, while it takes a while to make the transition, you also have to change your reputation.”

Demographic changes have prompted many colleges to take action to ensure their enrollments can be sustained as the number of high school graduates is expected to decline significantly over the next 15 years. An analysis by the New England Board of Higher Education predicts that between 2017 and 2031, high school graduates in the Nutmeg State will decline 18%, the largest drop off in the Northeast.

“Private, not-for-profit colleges like USJ have been especially nimble and responsive in addressing this concern and diversifying their student body in anticipation of this shift,” said Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges. “USJ went co-ed. This not only increased their student body count, but also allowed them to expand their program offerings.”

Turning to a legend

Sports are a major draw for any college campus and USJ invested millions of dollars in that area to brandish its co-ed reputation.

Last fall, it opened a new $16 million athletics venue for men’s and women’s basketball and student use, and it has launched six Division III men’s teams in basketball, cross country, lacrosse, soccer, swimming/diving and tennis.

Next spring it will launch its Division III men’s baseball program.

Its biggest splash was hiring UConn Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun in 2017 to lead its men’s basketball team.

Calhoun — who stepped down in November as head coach but remains at the university as an advisor — helped recruit men to the university’s sports program and was a key marketing force, Free said.

His hire drew national attention.

“When we realized we were going to go co-ed, one of the challenges would be getting the word out that we were now admitting men,” Free said. “We talked about how to get the word out and using Jim Calhoun seemed like a good strategy. It worked; we greatly exceeded our first-year goal for male students.”

Education experts said bringing on Calhoun a year prior to going co-ed was a big boost for the school.

“[USJ] focused on athletics in bringing Calhoun on,” said Ben Daniels, a lawyer at Robinson+Cole, who has worked with higher education clients for more than a decade. “St. Joe’s promoted the men’s athletics program while also maintaining a focus on equity and inclusion and strong academics.”

Going co-ed

Van Der Werf said all-women’s colleges were an anomaly in 1900 but later in the century, the movement among women to get educated with their peers grew. At one time, Van Der Werf said, there were more than 250 all-women colleges in this country.

“There was a time when the movement for women’s colleges began to grow,” Van Der Werf said. “That movement said women needed to be educated differently and there was a feeling among many that women would not get an equal education on a campus populated by men.”

Van Der Werf said all-women institutions, specifically the top-tiered women’s colleges, “have a history of producing future leaders in American government and politics. An education at these colleges really builds women up and increases their confidence. It can be empowering.”

The cons, however, Van Der Werf said, are “that it is a sector of higher education that’s been declining. A lot of these smaller-ranked women colleges have had declining enrollment and when [that happens], programs get eliminated and the faculty, sometimes, get laid off. When you are a college that is not growing, it becomes less attractive for potential students.”

New Haven’s Albertus Magnus College was the last Connecticut college — prior to St. Joseph — to go co-ed, having done so in 1985.

There was some pushback among a minority of faculty and students to USJ going co-ed and the same was true for Albertus Magnus, the college said.

In a statement to the Hartford Business Journal, Albertus Magnus said, “although the board voted unanimously to admit men, the college was conscious of the pushback and created a transition committee to listen to students’ suggestions and to adapt programs as required.”

Albertus Magnus also said “the college needed to have a larger student body, and the only way to get that was to admit men.”

There are now no all-women colleges left in Connecticut.

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