As more and more women's colleges find themselves considering coeducation as a remedy for dwindling enrollment and endowment, special attention is being paid to the effects of this change on the career paths of female graduates. The implications of choosing coeducation go well beyond the classroom to the nation's statehouses and corporate board rooms, researchers say.
Traditionally a driving force behind putting women in leadership positions, women's colleges may be diminishing the success of future graduates by admitting male students.
According to Elizabeth Tidball, a professor of physiology at George Washington Medical Center in Washington, D.C., women's colleges are ``superpromoters of whatever talent they get - including moderate talent that would normally never get tapped [at a co-ed college].''
Once these schools admit men, she says, a notable degree of women's talent goes unnoticed. ``They don't promote what is there.''
Dr. Tidball has found that graduates of women's colleges are more than twice as likely to achieve career or advanced educational success as their counterparts at co-ed institutions.
She concludes that admitting male students to a women's college can cause a marked reduction in the achievement of its female graduates, as determined by doctorates earned, Who's Who citations, and law or medical school admissions.
Tidball's research relates women's success to the number of female professors at a college. Female faculty and administrators act as role models for women students, who see significantly more female trustees, department heads, and presidents at women's colleges than at co-ed institutions.
According to Tidball, most women's colleges boast a nearly 50-50 male-female faculty ratio, but when an all-female institution admits male students, its share of female faculty members tends to drop to about 36 percent. (Women usually make up 23 percent of the faculty at traditionally co-ed colleges, and 16 percent at former all-men's colleges.)
In addition, Tidball says, ``Male faculty who teach at women's colleges are the most concerned about women's issues. That's going to add to the picture.''
But Frances L. Hoffmann, dean of student affairs at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., cautions that while Tidball's female faculty-female student success ratio is a significant finding, it is ``not fair to conclude that women's colleges that become co-ed automatically experience a decline in female faculty.''
Dr. Hoffmann asserts that the number of female faculty at Skidmore has not declined as a result of its becoming co-ed in 1970. The college made sure that in hiring for new positions, ``The candidate pool extended to as many minority and female applicants as was humanly possible,'' she says.
She explains that when the college first began to admit male students, men started to dominate key faculty positions. But she emphasizes the administration's successful efforts to check the advancement of such traditional sex roles.
While Dean Hoffmann admits that it takes real assertiveness for an institution to maintain its commitment to the education of women after admitting men, she claims that it can be done, as long as the college remains alert to signs that traditional faculty employment patterns are emerging and takes appropriate steps to redress any imbalance in faculty makeup.
At least two colleges are now working with the difficulties of admitting male students while preserving the atmosphere of a women's college. Maryland's Goucher College began classes with its first male students this month, and Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., will be opening its doors to men next September.
Goucher administrators say they are ready to take on the challenge of equality in coeducation.
For example, because studies have found co-ed classroom discussions to be male-dominated and professors to encourage men to participate more than women, Goucher's faculty has been conducting classroom research, preparing to monitor possible changes in class participation after male students arrive.
``We expect to provide an optimal environment for women and men,'' says Judith T. Phair, Goucher's vice-president for public relations.
Goucher is also planning to watch both the structure of its student government for evidence of male domination and any changes in its currently 50-50 male-female faculty ratio.
But Ms. Phair admits that overrepresentation of men in key administrative positions may be a sensitive problem to solve without quotas, a method most women's colleges would prefer to avoid.
Skidmore's Hoffmann says that former women's colleges that accepted men students 10 or 15 years ago provide ample guidelines for schools like Goucher and Wheaton, which are making the switch today.
But Tidball is not so optimistic.
Without all-women's colleges, she says, ``Society will have lost some possibilities for contributing female talent to the world.''