Notre Dame Bucks Trend of Closing Women’s Colleges

Mar 24, 2015

Gibbons Hall at Notre Dame of Maryland University
Credit John Lee / WYPR
 


While women’s colleges around the country are closing their doors, Maryland’s only women’s college, Notre Dame of Maryland University, is about to inaugurate its 14th president

The inauguration of Marylou Yam, scheduled next month, follows on the heels of news that Sweet Briar College in Virginia will close in August because of declining enrollment.

And Sweet Briar is only the latest casualty. According to the Women’s College Coalition, there were 230 all-female colleges in the U.S. and Canada in 1960. Now, there are only 47. And it’s about to be 46.Fewer young women graduating from high school appear to be interested in all female schools.

Elizabeth Tran, from Columbia, who is finishing her second year at Notre Dame, says a women’s college never crossed her mind when she was in high school. In fact, she says, she didn’t know Notre Dame was a women’s college until she took the campus tour. She liked what she saw.

“The small class sizes,” Tran said.  “And the professors all seemed very nice and they really wanted to work with you. And everyone I met. Everyone smiled at you when you walked by.”

Yam, the new president, says when a college sees enrollment declining, it needs to change to survive.

“You need to begin to say, “OK, what’s happening here,” she said. “Are there majors that we should be offering? Are there other programs at the institution that we should be offering?’”

Notre Dame of Maryland University President Marylou Yam
Credit John Lee / WYPR

  

Yam says Notre Dame is doing just that. For instance, they hope to get state approval to offer a doctorate in higher education. The program would be fully online. 

Unlike Sweet Briar, Notre Dame’s enrollment is increasing. Last fall, there were 500 students in the women’s college. This fall, they hope to make it 510. They are also targeting Sweet Briar students looking for a new academic home. Notre Dame is offering scholarships, waiving application fees and guaranteeing housing for Sweet Briar transfers. Notre Dame senior Lynette Hodge, of St. Mary’s County, says going from one women’s college to another would make things easier on the Sweet Briar students.

“I think it would just be easier to come to a school where you’re understood already,” she said. “I just feel terrible for them.”

Students and professors alike say a women’s college offers the chance for a student to grow, to spread her wings, without being trampled on in class by more assertive males.

Anne Henderson, chairwoman of Notre Dame’s history and political science department, says she remembers “being in a mixed-sex environment.”

“It was highly competitive. It was almost cutthroat,” she said. “And if you didn’t have the debate skills going into the class, you were either going to learn them either by being thrown into the deep end or you were just going to be silent.”

There is more to Notre Dame than the women’s college. There is an adult undergraduate program, as well as schools of nursing, pharmacy and education. These programs are co-ed, but even with that, women make up 86 percent of the student body. Yam says Notre Dame is the second-largest provider of new teachers in Maryland, behind Towson University. 

“Now, sometimes we’re third,” she said. “But this fall we did pass U. of M.--  University of Maryland. We just squeaked by them.”

Yam, who has been on the job eight months, says she was drawn to Notre Dame in part because she says it is a legendary institution. Founded in 1895, it was the first catholic women’s college in the U.S. to grant a baccalaureate degree. Her formal inauguration is April 17.