Coeducation in Colleges

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Having officially accepted women to their undergraduate program in 1837, Oberlin College was the first university postsecondary institution to become coeducational. Following Oberlin, other colleges across the United States began to open their doors to female undergraduates. However there were some universities that stayed single-sex, such as the Seven Sister schools, which praised all-female education, and found that their students would thrive separated from men.  In her book, Separate by Degree: Women’s Students’ Experiences in Single-Sex and Coeducational Colleges, Leslie Miller-Bernal states, “women’s colleges have always lived under a banner of controversy…as they developed and became an important part of American higher education, stereotypes have often been used to describe them…but they have also been damaging in their ability to obscure the educational value of women’s colleges and to confuse, if not terrify, potential applicants” (Miller-Bernal p. xv).  This banner of controversy that Miller-Bernal goes on to describe is one of the many reasons why single-sex colleges merged to become coeducational institutions, to avoid some negative connotations that might have been associated with their schools, as well as to attract more potential applicants who might have been more interested in the school had it been coeducational. Coeducation, while it plays a large part in how men and women were, and are currently, educated, also affects in what ways the students are educated. In coeducational institutions, the gender demographics affect campus climate outside of the classroom, as well as inside of it; it is important to investigate how coeducation of women affected the gender demographics of student majors, by potentially further developing female-dominated majors, or bridging the gap to male-dominated fields.

Waiting over 100 years to co-educate after Oberlin College, Trinity College officially became a mixed-sex college in 1969. The reasons for Trinity’s acceptance of women were a mutually beneficial decision for both the college and the students; the dean of faculty, Robert Fuller, proposed said reasons to President Lockwood, to explain how Trinity would benefit from accepting women[1]. Fuller explained that studies suggested that men and women educated separately may be at a disadvantage, because they would not be fully prepared for the world after college in which they did not have the option of only working with people of their own sex. At the time at which Dean Fuller was writing this memo he addressed the falling number of applications that Trinity received, and declared that it was because men, at the time, wanted to go to mixed-sex colleges. Therefore, because the number of applications was decreasing, Dean Fuller suggests that the number of talented students at the college was shrinking because there was not as large of a set to choose from.  Fuller subsequently gave the President gave three key reasons as to why Trinity could only succeed if it decided to accept women. The first reason present was to accept women would cause Trinity to draw a more talented group of applicants, therefore Trinity would have more talented students; the college could replace less talented men with more talented women. Second, the distraction associated with having a mixed-sex classroom would rapidly diminish with a constant presence of women. Lastly, admitting women would “be continuing [Trinity’s] tradition of undertaking whatever actions are necessary to protect its excellence;” this final piece of logical reasoning, as well as with those previously stated, shows that Dean Fuller truly was focused on protecting the excellence of Trinity, and proved himself right when one year after his memo was read by President Lockwood women were accepted to Trinity College, and the college’s coeducation was official.

Presently, it has come to the attention of colleges and universities just how large of an impact that the coeducation of women has had on the nation’s higher learning institutions.  From an article in the New York Times: “Department of Education statistics show that men, whatever their race or socioeconomic group, are less likely than women to get bachelor’s degrees – and among those who do, fewer complete their degrees in four or five years. Men also get worse grades than women…faced with applications and enrollment numbers that tilt toward women, some selective private colleges are giving men a slight boost in admissions”[2]. This present-day divide is the ironic inversion of what coeducation was like in the 1900s. When women began at mixed-sex institutions they remained in a passive state, letting men remain dominant in fields that stereotypically were not appropriate for women, such as the sciences or the humanities like political science or economics. This dominance has slowly diminished, and has allowed women to find equality in the gender demographics regarding student majors.

According to The Princeton Review, there are ten majors that are the most popular in the entire United States: Business Administration, Psychology, Nursing, Biology, Education, English/Literature, Economics, Communications, Political Science, and Computer Science.[3] While these majors span both the liberal arts and large university education offerings, it is worthwhile to look further into how this list might compare to the preferred majors of each gender. In a study from 2010, performed by Forbes, the ten most popular majors for male and female students we comprised into two lists.[4] The number of students who received a degree in that specific major, while compared by percentage of each gender in the major, is how Forbes chose t. As reported by Forbes, the most popular majors for women in 2010 were Business, Health Professions, Social Sciences, Education, Psychology, Visual and Performing Arts, Communications, Biology, English/Literature, and Liberal Arts. Comparatively, for men the most popular majors were Business, Social Sciences, Engineering, Visual and Performing Arts, Computer Science, Biology, Communications, Education, Psychology, and Security and Protective Services. What is particularly interesting about these lists is the percentage of men to women that are in these “popular” majors. For example, the majors listed for women all have predominantly more women than men, with the exception of Business and Social Sciences which have percentages that are slightly smaller than half. Conversely, the majors for the men are somewhat more skewed. While some of the more popular majors are shared with women, those that are shared have less men to women in the program. The programs that have the most men are those that are not listed for women: Engineering, Computer Science, and Security and Protective Services. These dichotomy between majors, while it shows signs of advancement for women who share popular majors with men, also shows that there is still separation between the male and female spheres in college education on the national scale.

On the smaller scale that refers directly to Trinity College, the dichotomy between majors is one that still thrives somewhat. When looking at the data of major statistics from the past 22 years one can see how the popularity of certain majors have either progressed or digressed.[5] For example, the English major has decreased from having a total of 70 students in 1989 to just 43 in 2011, however what is most notable is that 67% of that decrease is accounted for by men who stopped majoring in English, allowing the major to become predominantly female. In opposition to the English major’s decrease of male students, over the past 22 years, men have accounted for 92% of the increase in the Economics department. Furthermore, the major that women have consistently majored in more than men, with no variation, is Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WMGS). In the past 8 years – the major was introduced to the graduating class of 2003, 36 out of the 38 students who have received a WMGS degree have been women. Though this statistic is the least surprising, it is probably the most telling because when comparing it to the other majors offered by the college, most majors have showed equalization between the genders or at minimum a progression to equalization. Majors that were once male-dominated are slowly becoming equalized, however the majors that were female-dominated in 1989 are still female-dominated today, which suggests a possible hesitance for men to extend into the female sphere while it is not as threatening for women to force themselves to extend into the male sphere since they already had to do that when coeducation began.

The differences in majors may be associated with the way that colleges were taught about how their institution can support its women.[6] Schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference were influenced by Hamilton College and Middlebury College who followed the rule that a “way a college can support its women students is by having courses on women’s issues, such as women and the arts, or the sociology of women.” This idea of supporting female students through appealing to what is perceived to be interests to them was then pressed upon the women, who were in turn given little opportunity to explore other subjects.6 Evidence for this can be found in how colleges enrolled their students in courses, and who they allowed to enroll in courses. The influence that institutions played on their students is what once separated the spheres of male-dominant and female-dominant majors; it was not until after coeducation had been enacted for years that institutions stopped influencing their students.

Women’s integration into the male sphere is an action that is continuous in the United States. Throughout history women have had to fight for equality in the workplace, because at one point it was solely the “man’s job” to work and be economically responsible for the household. However, the integration of women into all-male schools has helped to alleviate the separation of men and women in the workplace. Though women are still earning 81 cents to the man’s dollar, this gap has shrunk in recent years. Today, the largest gaps in income are seen in the highest-paying professions, which happen to be mainly male-dominated. Comparing the most popular male majors to the list of highest earning Bachelor Degrees can make this inference: Engineering and Computer Science are the two highest-earning degrees.

However, as noted, the percentage difference between male and female earnings is at maximum 3%, which shows signs of improvement from the once 10% difference.[7] So while Forbes reports that Engineering and Computer Science are popular majors for men, and men dominate those fields, the women that do choose to earn their Bachelors Degrees in those fields reap the rewards of doing so. The classroom competition that goes along with coeducation is what seems to be the motivation for women to succeed after college.  At Trinity College, the Engineering and Computer Science programs have both grown in regards to their female students, so it appears as though the women of the college are taking note of the rewards that are at stake for crossing into a male-dominated field.

While women are now moving into the world of male-dominated fields, it is important to note the progress made at Trinity College specifically. In a New York Times article, the writer states, “Whether the male advantage will persist even as women’s academic achievement soars is an open question.” This “open question” is one that may find its answer in Trinity College. From the data seen above, it is visible that Trinity women are focusing more attention on what interests them, rather than what is expected of them, hence the movement into equalizing male-dominated fields. Evaluating the Trinity major statistics to the Forbes study, and finally to the income comparison chart shows that Trinity women have greatly benefited from the coeducation of the college. However, one cannot neglect the road to which Trinity followed to arrive at where it is today. Without the competition from their male peers, Trinity women would not have branched out to fields that were once completely dominated by men. While there are some majors today that have more men than women, it is how the proportions of men to women has slowly shrunk over the past 20 years that gives hope that one day every field will be about even, which would show that there are no dominant fields, but only fields shared by both male and female students who are interested in pursuing a career in which they can find success.

[1] Fuller, Robert. “The Admission of Women Undergraduates to Trinity College.” Print.

[2] Lewin, Tamar. “At Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust.” New York Times. 9 July 2006. Web. <>.

[3] “Top 10 College Majors.” Test Prep: GMAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, SAT, ACT, and More. Web. 04 Apr. 2012. <>.

[4] Gordreau, Jenna. “Most Popular College Majors for Women.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 10 Aug. 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2012. <>.

[5] Hughes, James. Trinity College Major Statistics 1989-2011. Raw data. Trinity College, Hartford.

[6] Miller-Bernal, Leslie. Separate by Degree: Women Students’ Experiences in Single-sex and Coeducational Colleges. New York: P. Lang, 2000. Print.

[7] Rampell, Catherine. “College Majors That Put Women on Equal Footing With Men.”Economix Blog. The New York Times, 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Apr. 2012. <>.