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Women's colleges remain a vibrant force in education . . .

Women's colleges are not only alive and well, they're defending and promoting their specialized role in education. This may surprise those who, in the past decade, saw some traditionally female colleges choose to go coed and others fall under the weight of financial problems afflicting all private colleges.

In contrast with those in the early '70s who predicted co-education would be the wave of the future, the Women's College Coalition in Washington, D.C., insists women's colleges are holding their own against, and in some cases doing better than, their equivalent coeducational institutions.

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Even though the number of women's colleges has dropped from 142 in 1972 to 116 today (only three of them public institutions- Texas Woman's University, Mississippi State College for Women, and Douglass College, the women's division of Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey,) women's colleges find encouragement in these developments:

* Total enrollment rose 25 percent in every type of women's college over the last decade. Enrollments also rose in every category - undergraduate (14.8 percent); graduate (129.6 percent); full-time (7.7 percent); and part-time (121. 5 percent)

* Applications rose 4 percent in 1980 from '79 and new part-time students rose 17.9 percent.

* The 283 students in the current freshman class of Goucher College, an all-women's college near Baltimore, represent a 12 percent increase over last year's and make up the largest new class at Goucher in five years.

Nan Keohane, president of Wellesley College, says that ''women's colleges have, if anything, more of a mandate than ever before as women prepare to serve in a world that is increasingly difficult to understand.''

During the early '70s when many single-sex institutions were admitting members of the opposite sex, most women's colleges at least addressed the issue. Some chose to admit men, some for financial reasons, some philosophical. But many chose not to. In the final analysis, of the ''seven sisters'' (Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Barnard, and Bryn Mawr, female counterparts of the Ivy League colleges), only Vassar chose to admit men. Radcliffe and Barnard, though closely affiliated with Harvard and Columbia and permitting class exchanges, retain their identity as women's colleges.

As Ms. Keohane observed, ''there is still a need for [women's colleges], despite huge gains for women.

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''We have a history of taking women's education seriously . . . and we have a good track record. Many of our [country's] most successful women have come from women's institutions.''

''A lot of coed schools are good with women. But we are a group of institutions that have done nothing but think about how to educate women. We think we can share some good things. . . . In many ways, I think [women's colleges] can serve as models for coed institutions.''

She noted that the Association of American Colleges recently did a study on the status of women in colleges 10 years after Title IX was passed (by Congress in 1972, to guarantee equal educational opportunities for women) which noted that, although the classroom was more open, it was in many places pervaded by outdated attitudes toward women's potential. Women were not being encouraged to prepare themselves for careers in nontraditional fields, such as math and science. The discrimination was subtle but nonetheless present.

Ms. Keohane added, ''This sort of subtle discrimination doesn't exist at women's colleges. . . . There is more receptivity to (women and) women's issues here because there is no built-in structure that discourages it.''

Students at Wheaton College, here in Norton, echoed these feelings. ''The atmosphere is less competitive, it's much easier to learn.

. . . You make better friends when there's less competition,'' said a freshman from Delaware.

A sophomore said, ''You're not intimidated by guys in the class. You can get more out of your studies.''

Susan Shea, director of public information at Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., observed that ''the all-woman's college provides an environment for young women to be and practice being equal with co-workers - as they learn to excel.

''We're finding many young women today come here for the good education first and then get hooked on the all-woman's college. It's a chance to achieve with a higher sense of self-esteem than they had in high school.''

Ruth Schmidt, president of Agnes Scott, an all-women's college in Atlanta, noted: ''Women's colleges will continue to be leaders in understanding contemporary women's lives. Because they have always been devoted to women, they have considered these things.''

Many women's colleges have pioneered programs relating to women's needs. These include new courses introduced into the curriculum as well as entire institutes like the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe (in Cambridge, Mass.) devoted to the study of women. Many of the urban colleges have started flexible scheduling to include working women, mothers, or both, while others have restructured programs and requirements to enable older women to return to campus.

Janis Boster, director of admissions at Goucher College, noted that ''most women's colleges pledged themselves to lure the older and nontraditional students,'' noting that as the best men's colleges went coed, many of the best female students ''were siphoned off.'' She added that the resulting diversity of the student body has had a ''very positive broadening effect on the younger women on campus.''

Goucher president Rhoda Dorsey speaks enthusiastically of the changes ushered in over the last decade. ''Women's colleges have improved their financial conditions and enrollments. . . . The worst time was 15, 16 years ago when single-sex colleges were going coed.

''But there is a lot more respect abroad for them than there was 10 years ago , in part . . . because the times have addressed more specifically opportunities for women.''

She notes that it was the women's movement that made women begin to rethink their place in society. As this happened, women's colleges began to find a renewed interest on the part of women who wanted to work and learn in an environment where they would not be discriminated against.

'Women's colleges are a very good place for a certain kind of women. . . . There are role models galore - all the administration is female, the faculty is half female.

''Our job is to build up a degree of confidence within women so they can move forward. . . . We know what we're doing and what we do, we do well.''

On the future of women's colleges, President Dorsey concludes, ''Women's colleges are a subset of the traditional liberal art colleges. As that genre goes, so will they.

''But for the foreseeable future, there is and will continue to be a legitimate place on the American college scene for them.''

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