"Honey, that's a girls' school"
It's a familiar conversation: tell someone you attended SLC, and you may spend the next minute or two explaining that it’s a coed college. Despite nearly four decades of coeducation and sometimes strenuous, always ongoing efforts to communicate the fact—Sarah Lawrence suffers from the misperception that the College is still single sex. This lack of awareness annually keeps the pool of potential applicants for admission—not just in numbers, but also in diversity—at a less than optimal level.
“We need to be more direct about this, because we deal with this issue on a daily basis,” says Thyra Briggs, dean of enrollment. “At every college fair I attend, at some point someone says, ‘Oh, you’re an all-girls’ school’. The classic situation is when you’re attending a fair, and a boy is coming toward you, and his mother literally pulls him away and says, ‘Honey, that’s a girls’ school.’ Admission reps do their best to turn the tide but, more often than not, they become salmon swimming upstream. What really gets to me,” Briggs says, “is that there’s an entire group of men out there who aren’t even considering us because they don’t think it’s an option.”
President Michele Myers sees further implications. “Our students are wonderful as is, and we wouldn’t change that for a minute. But the larger the larger the pool, and the larger the diversity of the pool, the more chances we have as an institution to craft a strong class. That’s really what we’re after.
“When people self-select out of the pool because of a misconception, well, it frustrates us.”
Where are the men?
New York Times columnist David Brooks brought a national trend to national attention last fall. “Women are more likely to enroll in college,” he wrote, “...so now there are hundreds of schools where the female-male ratio is 60 to 40...And here’s the most important piece of data. Until 1985 or so, male college graduates outnumbered female college graduates. But in the mid-80’s, women drew even, and ever since they have been pulling away at a phenomenal rate.”
The Department of Education has more dire predictions. For every 100 men who grab a diploma at the end of this decade, 142 women will be there on the dais with them. Among African-Americans, the ratio is even more skewed, with 200 female graduates for every 100 male graduates.
The issue of the perception of Sarah Lawrence as a single-sex college takes on greater urgency in light of such a decline. And that’s not all.
While Sarah Lawrence sees itself as beyond category (“You are different. So are we,” runs its successful admission appeal), it finds itself smack in the very category experiencing the biggest problem. Some observers claim that small liberal arts schools seek and reward what a lot of young men at the age of 17 are not good at, like discussions and team problem-solving. Many young men also tend to be happier, at least in the first few years, in a school where there is a sports culture and the ability to blend in—which is not possible at Sarah Lawrence.
“Women,” says columnist Brooks, “are more likely to have better applications” for liberal arts schools, and Dean Briggs can only agree. “Our application process rewards what girls are often better at: writing,” she says, adding that boys tend to perform better on the more objective, quantitative tests.
“A lot of liberal arts college applications can appear daunting.”
Yet, despite the potential decline in men attending college, President Meyers's goals for the institution remain nothing less than to mirror the diversity of the world outside Sarah Lawrence, not the shifting proportions of men to women within the academy. “Our objective is to be an institution that reflects the world as much as possible. We want the people—because institutions are really its people—to be fully representative, on a gender basis, on a racial and ethnic basis, and economically as well.”
While the College continues its strong strides toward this goal, she believes, there is much work to be done. “We still need to get there. We can always do more.”