Twenty years ago, Chatham College was a struggling, small, liberal arts undergraduate women’s college facing a dire financial and enrollment situation. As we’ve done for 145 years, we adapted, innovated and emerged as a stronger institution through the addition of graduate programs for men and women, an expansion into online education, and by developing areas of excellence in the fields of health sciences and sustainability.
Ultimately, this led to our successful transformation from the ~ 500 undergraduate student college we were then to the diverse 2,000+ student strong university spread over three locations and 425 acres we are today.
These changes allowed us to preserve and support the undergraduate women’s college in an incredibly challenging market where only 2% of high school girls say they would consider a women’s college, and a similarly small percentage graduate from them. Our efforts helped us continue to provide a high quality Chatham undergraduate education even as the number of women’s colleges has declined from 300 institutions in 1960 to currently less than 50.
Today—even with our best efforts and significant investments in recruiting, marketing and financial support—we stand as a community at another crossroads concerning the future of the undergraduate women’s college. We face challenges stemming from the impact of 2008’s recession and the realignment it has brought to undergraduate higher education that include the following:
- While quality measures and US News & World Report rankings continue to improve, enrollment in the Chatham College for Women at Chatham University currently represents less than 1/3 of the total university enrollment, has declined each year from its peak in 2008 and is projected to continue to decline in the coming years.
- Pennsylvania—our biggest source of undergraduate students—is tied as the state with the highest number of women’s or “women centric” colleges in the country, has seen the number of college bound students peak in 2009 and is projected to have a 9% decline in college bound students over the next three years (this is important as 80% of first-year college students attend a school within 200 miles of their home).
- Standard & Poor’s 2014 rating for the U.S. not-for-profit higher education sector is “negative” and it states: “We expect the next few years to be particularly difficult for law schools, single-sex institutions and small religious institutions.”
To better understand and address these very serious market challenges, committees consisting of Chatham’s board, alumnae, faculty and administration began researching in 2013 the current state of undergraduate education at Chatham while looking at ways to maintain our high quality undergraduate offerings and to grow undergraduate enrollment across the university.
Given the findings of these committees, the Board of Trustees voted at the February board meeting in support of a resolution to: Further study and consider proposals to make all undergraduate education at Chatham University coeducational on or before its June 2014 meeting. Both the Board and the administration welcome input from the Chatham University community on this important issue.
To facilitate community input, we will conduct a series of online and in-person meetings in March and April, and have launched this blog where you will be able to review the issues, contribute to the discussion and comment on ideas being considered to address these challenges while honoring our mission of fostering women’s leadership. Questions and comments may also be sent to ChathamFeedback@Chatham.edu.
When we last faced this issue, we were able to diversify and grow our university offerings around the women’s college in order to save it. Confronted with a very different environment today, we must now address the critical need to grow undergraduate education into balance with the university’s graduate enrollment—something that looks to be increasingly difficult to achieve with an exclusive focus on women at the undergraduate level.
Chatham was founded in 1869 to address one of the major issues of the time—ensuring women had access to the same educational opportunities as men. 145 years later, women are in the majority at most universities and colleges, and the needs of our students and society continue to change. While great progress toward access and opportunity in education for women has been made, new issues have emerged that are less about access to education than the need for greater women’s leadership development and a deeper understanding of the role of diversity and gender in the workplace. Chatham’s history of innovation and reinvention make us uniquely positioned to once again address issues such as these in bold, new ways.
We look forward to engaging with you in this conversation about the next chapter in the future of Chatham University.