Now that the hype has died down, Sharon Latchaw Hirsh might breathe a sigh of relief—if someone in her position can ever really do such a thing. And yet, as the 13th president of Rosemont College, Hirsh remains keenly aware that the biggest change in the institution’s 88-year history has occurred on her watch. This past fall, the Catholic school welcomed its first undergraduate men to campus.
A 1970 Rosemont graduate, Hirsh knew the change was crucial if her school was to move forward. It has significantly increased enrollment by adding male students to the mix, not to mention women who previously would’ve frowned upon a same-sex learning environment. The result? The largest freshman class in 40 years arrived on Rosemont’s lushly wooded campus in late August. “We’ve turned such a corner,” says Hirsh.
The 177 freshmen enrolled for 2009-10 comprise almost half the full-time undergraduate student body of 419. Sixty-one are male—34 percent of the class. Not a bad first-year percentage when you consider that, nationwide, men account for about 43 percent of full-time undergraduate enrollment. Among the older students, just eight are male.
Rosemont saw a 57-percent increase in applications for the fall of 2009. Perhaps even more telling, no students left—or withdrew their deposits—after the college announced its intention to go coed.
A freshman from Northeast Philadelphia, Rus Slawter was also accepted at West Chester and Bloomsburg universities, but he decided on Rosemont for reasons shared by many of its first-year men. As a basketball player, he stands a good chance of playing all four years for Rosemont’s new team. An eight-to-one student-to-faculty ratio and an average class size of 12 students swayed his decision. And it didn’t hurt that Rosemont had the business classes he was looking for.
Helping to tip the scale for many students, male or female: the sheer beauty of a 56-acre campus tucked away in the heart of the Main Line along Montgomery Avenue. And when it comes to his studies,being in the minority has compelled Slawter to step up his game a bit. “I feel like I pay attention a lot more,” he says.
Slawter’s teammate, Greg Gardner, is a junior business major from Sharon Hill who transferred from the two-year Manor College in Jenkintown. As a resident assistant, he helps oversee 52 of the men living on campus. So far, dorm issues are pretty typical: too much noise and not enough attention to cleaning up trash, he says.
But while freshmen and transfers are attending the only Rosemont they’ve ever known, it’s a bit of an adjustment for returning female students. Gardner freely acknowledges he’s had a few disapproving looks—and as one of a handful of men in his class, he could easily feel outnumbered.
“But I don’t look at it that way,” he says. “There’s a sense of community.”
The wheels for Rosemont College’s profound transformation were set in motion on May 30, 2008, when its board of trustees approved the decision to go coed. Not surprisingly, many alumnae weren’t happy with the change, launching a letter-writing campaign targeting Hirsh and the board. Even those who supported the decision couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss. “Coed is, unfortunately, the end of something sacred,” lamented one Facebook poster. “The end of the sisterhood we all share.”
When it was all over, resignation set in among many former students who recalled their single-sex Rosemont years with fondness. “I guess they have to do what they can to survive,” says 1991 graduate Melissa Torbik, the Wilkes-Barre native behind the Facebook page, “I Went to Rosemont College When It Was All-Women.”
Torbik attributes her self-assurance to Rosemont’s single-sex environment, and she’s experienced the ensuing changes through her twin sisters, who graduated in 2006. By then, enrollment had begun to slide, and Rosemont wasn’t quite the same anymore, Torbik contends.
But staying a single-sex institution couldn’t turn back the clock. And certainly a coed Rosemont College was better than no Rosemont at all.
In 2001, Rosemont and Chestnut Hill College commissioned a study on the viability and marketability of women’s Catholic institutions. And for anyone holding out hope that declining enrollment trends could be reversed, the results were dispiriting, to say the least.
Research revealed what many Rosemont alumnae already knew—that most high school girls weren’t at all interested in attending an all-female Catholic college. In fact, former students were having a devil of a time convincing daughters, granddaughters, nieces, etc., to even visit their alma mater.
Nearly across the board, high schoolers believed all-female Catholic colleges were outdated and sub-par academically, athletically and socially. According to the study, prospective students saw such schools as “a training ground for nuns.” All in all, only about 3 percent of U.S. high school girls would consider attending any single-sex college, let alone a Catholic one.
At the time of the study, the Philadelphia area had six women’s colleges. Only two of the six remain single-sex: Bryn Mawr College and Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. Chestnut Hill went coed in 2003, and Immaculata University near Malvern succumbed in 2005. Harcum, a two-year college in Bryn Mawr, began enrolling full-time male students in 2003.
Rosemont launched its own study in 2006 to explore its options. One discarded idea included partnering or merging with nearby Villanova University. By the time its board of trustees voted to go coed, the college had a projected deficit of about $1 million for the 2008-09 school year—no small sum for an institution with a $22 million operating budget and a $10.9 million endowment.
For the most part, Rosemont College made no special recruitment efforts or financial aid offers leading up to the pivotal Fall 2009 semester. “We just opened up the doors,” says Hirsh.
Sports, however, were an exception. Rosemont had to build a men’s athletics program—and fast. They started by adding soccer, basketball and tennis the first year to meet Title IX and NCAA Division III regulations.
Fortunately, enough male students found the chance to be part of history too compelling to pass up. Thirty-two of those who enrolled last fall are on the soccer and basketball teams; 28 are freshmen.
“I’m excited about it—I think a lot of guys are,” says Upper Darby’s Will McLaughlin, a junior transfer student from Immaculata. “We have to set the tone both athletically and academically.”
Soccer coach Will Nord recruited 17 players. In its first season, the team went 6-9 and finished seventh in the Colonial States Athletic Conference. “We’re realistic,” says Nord. “We understand it’s going to be a process.”
Men’s basketball coach Ryan Tozer is working with 15 freshmen and two upperclassmen. By December, the team was 3-3 overall and 1-3 in the conference. “Everything is a milestone,” he says. “We hoped to be competitive from day one.”
Tozer, who coached at LaSalle and Holy Family universities, found himself recruiting players who didn’t know a thing about the school. But the athletic opportunities sold themselves, he notes—as did the favorable male-to-female ratio.
That said, adding male undergraduates to the campus mix required very few physical changes, says Tom Szatkowski, Rosemont’s facilities director. The graduate school has admitted men since 1994, though none lived there. Among the changes: a new gym floor with lines for the men’s teams, designated dorm floors and men’s locker rooms.
On the policy front, Rosemont administrators had to start thinking like a coed institution. While the habit of calling female students “women,” not “girls,” has been long ingrained, administrators still admit to slipping and calling male students “boys” instead of “men.” The handbook had to be rewritten to make pronouns neutral and remove references to “your daughter” and “she.” A section on dorm rules includes an opposite-sex visitation policy.
Then there was the mascot, the Rosemont Rambler. A “rambler” is a climbing rose, so it definitely had to go. The new Rosemont Raven is gender neutral and decidedly tougher.
The former symbol won’t disappear completely. A class ring in the shape of a rose remains an option.
Not be overlooked amid the surge of testosterone on campus are the women of Rosemont. Drawn to the school by its study-abroad opportunities even before the coed announcement, freshman Zoey Bonfante fell in love with the location. “The campus is gorgeous,” she says.
Alas, one woman whose opinion might have mattered most isn’t around to ask. Without Cornelia Connelly, Rosemont College wouldn’t exist. Born in Philadelphia in 1809, the wife and mother converted to Catholicism and founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in 1846. Rosemont is the only college guided by her educational principles and those of the society.
Last year was the 200th anniversary of Connelly’s birth. And though she championed women’s education, she also believed that men and women should have equal academic opportunities.
So what might her decision have been on Rosemont going coed? Offering a hint, Hirsh points to one of Connelly’s favorite mottos: “You need to always meet the wants of the age.”
And as Rosemont thoroughly explored the prospect of going coed, one sentiment consistently came to the fore. “People were saying, ‘Oh, Cornelia would’ve voted for this in a heartbeat,’” says Hirsh.
Fellow Catholic institutions Chestnut Hill College and Immaculata University have experienced an enrollment renaissance since going coed earlier in the decade. “We were committed to women’s education, but I don’t regret for one minute the decision to go coed,” says Chestnut Hill president Sister Carol Jean Vale of the changes made in 2003.
According to the Women’s College Coalition, there are now 53 all-women’s colleges and universities in the United States. The most successful among them have large endowments, are in less competitive environments, and are located near a coeducational institution. Chestnut Hill didn’t have any of that, Vale notes.
But while Vale acknowledges the need to change with the times, she adds that she’s “disappointed that women no longer see the value of single-gender education at the collegiate level.” Yet, when Sharon Hirsh sought Vale’s advice about the situation facing Rosemont College, “I told her it was the best decision she could possibly make,” she admits.
Women’s schools typically go coed to stem dwindling enrollment—and Chestnut Hill was no exception. In 2003, Chestnut Hill’s full-time enrollment was 430 students. By 2008, it had climbed to 756.
Immaculata University followed Chestnut Hill’s lead in 2005. That year, the school’s undergraduate enrollment was 604. In 2008, it ballooned to 890. “There’s no such thing as standing still,” says Immaculata’s president, Sister Patricia Fadden. “It’s a law in physics, and it’s a law in education.”