When Chatham University was founded in 1869 under the name Pennsylvania Female College, it was born into a world of furious debate over the role of women's higher education.
Would it reduce the number of marriages? Were women smart enough? Or even physically capable? One retired Harvard Medical School professor wrote in a 1873 report that women should not participate in higher education if they hoped for a future "secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria and other derangements of the nervous system."
As Chatham considers admitting male undergraduates for the first time in its history, the debate over women's higher education continues. But the issues involved have flipped.
With women now doing so well in higher education -- outnumbering men in earning degrees from the associate to doctoral level -- is there still a need for single-sex education?
Chatham's decision was driven by two factors, said president Esther Barazzone in a written statement of prepared reflections: "the difficulty of reaching a critical mass of students in contemporary times and the philosophical question of whether educating women alone continues to be the best way to give women a quality education in the 21st century."
Only 2 to 4 percent of high school females are interested in attending a women's college, Ms. Barazzone said. And with that small of a market share, recruitment is difficult.
"We have spent twice as much money marketing our women's college as we have all of our other programs," she said.
Even so, it represents less than a third of the university's total enrollment of nearly 2,200. "We project we will reach untenable numbers in very few years under current circumstances," she said.
The number of women's colleges in the U.S. has declined from more than 200 in the 1960s to fewer than 50 today. The number of women enrolled in women's colleges has decreased from 103,452 in 1998 to 95,677 in 2006 to 79,099 in 2011, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Colleges that only admit men have become coeducational even more rapidly. Only three such colleges -- Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., Morehouse College in Atlanta and Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden-Sydney, Va. -- remain.
Chatham, Bryn Mawr College, Cedar Crest College and Moore College of Art and Design are the last Pennsylvania women's colleges, with schools such as Carlow University, Wilson College and Immaculata University going fully co-educational or admitting a limited number of men in recent years.
That said, there is still a place for women's colleges, said Barbara Mistick, president of Wilson College in Chambersburg, which started admitting men in the fall.
"I still believe that there is a very distinct need for women's colleges -- not all women feel comfortable and competitive in coed environments and generally we want to support diversity of options," she said. "But my sense is that we will not see as many women's institutions in the future as we see today."
Some women's colleges are still thriving in attracting applicants, such as Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Barnard College in New York City.
Marilyn Hammond, interim president of the Women's College Coalition, understands why colleges are seeking to diversify and add men to their student body. But she believes women on campus do lose something tangible when colleges go coed.
"There's a lot of research that shows how effective women's colleges are in bolstering success and satisfaction with their college experience, and I think that's what changes," she said. "I don't think your commitment to women changes -- I'm sure that Chatham is committed to all of their students' success, but there is a difference when women study and live in an all-women environment, and that will change."
Despite alumnae complaints to the contrary, Ms. Barazzone said Chatham is not retreating from its focus on women. In fact, along with existing centers for women in politics and women in entrepreneurship, Chatham has early plans to create an institute or similar entity tied to women, leadership and equity.
She said it reflects a shift in the sort of challenges women now face.
"The real issue for women right now is not equity and access to education. Women are in the majority at most coed institutions," she said. "Some of those institutions are even doing affirmative action for men.
"The problem for women is what is loosely called the glass ceiling," she added. "Women are not advancing into enough CEO positions."
Over a decade ago, Seton Hill University in Greensburg responded to market pressures similar to those that Chatham faces today. In 2002, as part of a bigger move to university status, the women's institution went fully coed. In the years since, its enrollment has doubled to about 2,700 students.
Men account for 37 percent of total enrollment on a campus that has seen new programs and the introduction of football and other men's sports.
"There is absolutely life and vibrancy after going coed," provost Mary Ann Gawelek said Thursday.
But the decision back then was a complicated one.
It involved careful analysis of both the student market and the university's goals, as well as exhaustive dialogue to win support of alumnae and other constituents. And it necessitated physical changes from additional rest room facilities and sturdier chairs to beds -- longer ones.
The need for that became especially clear once men's basketball was introduced on campus in 2003.
"I remember one of the guys said to me, 'Dr. Gawelek, we really like it here except my feet hang off the bed. You have to do something about my feet hanging off the bed.' "
At the time the school went coed, it had become clear to many on campus that what made a women's college was more about what goes on in the classroom than being single sex. If faculty could continue using teaching methods best suited to women, and if the campus continued to encourage women to pursue leadership roles, then there was no reason men could not attend, Ms. Gawelek said.
Seton Hill said it did not lose major donors and found in its market analysis that women often were choosing Seton Hill not because it was a women's college, but in spite of that fact, she added.
The provost said Seton Hill believes it has preserved an environment that is conducive to women's growth both personally and professionally. But she said single-sex education still make sense for some.
"Women's colleges create an environment for a select number of women who want that particular closeness and not having men around, and clearly faculty are drawn to that environment [who] may have a particular expertise or slant on their disciplines," she said.
Ms. Mistick, at Wilson College, noted that the decision to go coed was part of a more comprehensive change to their campus culture and vision.
To incorporate undergraduate men, Wilson upgraded its fitness center and is currently renovating a residence hall, in addition to many other changes -- both physical and administrative.
"People think you made a decision about change and it's like walking into a room and turning on the lights and everything is different," she said. "It's not -- there's no end to the procedural steps. It's not a simple undertaking."
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308. Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977.