Almost 125 years after the act to incorporate Converse College, the administrators responsible for carrying out those directives are leaning on the original documents to guide them through a couple of major changes.
For the first time since its founding in 1889, the Spartanburg school will admit men to its undergraduate program in the fall of 2021, when the school name will be changed to Converse University.
The Converse College Board of Trustees voted Friday morning to do both.
Converse President Krista L. Newkirk said the 1896 act to incorporate the college says that Converse “shall be a high-grade college for the liberal education of women, or of both men and women, if it shall be deemed expedient.”
It’s become more than expedient, Newkirk said at a press conference following the trustees’ meeting. It’s become a matter of survival for a school facing the reality of numbers. The number of students in college is predicted to fall by 15% nationwide after 2025, according to The Hechinger Report, an education news organization. The decrease is a result of a lower birthrate that started with the economic slowdown of 2008. And according to information compiled in a Converse College report, while college enrollment has increased 32% since 2000, attendance at women’s colleges has decreased 29%.
Making male students a part of the undergraduate experience at Converse isn’t just about boosting the enrollment numbers by adding men to the 800-member undergraduate student body. Administrators expect the change to attract more women, too, and more of both are needed in the face of changing preferences and demographics. Enrollment peaked at Converse in 2017 when it topped 900.
As the decline in high school graduates affects colleges everywhere, those female graduates who do choose college are far less inclined to choose a school for women, Newkirk said.
“We know that by making this change more women will come to Converse — women who otherwise would not have considered us — and because of that we will have an even greater impact as we help more women find their voice, value and vision,” she said. “With fewer than 2% of female college-bound high school students even considering a single-gender college, we see the addition of a coeducational undergraduate residential component as a strategy not just to recruit men but also to recruit women who have previously not shown an interest in Converse.”
Most colleges that accepted only women in 1960 have gone coed or closed.
“Studies from 15 single-gender colleges who added a coeducational component showed a two-year average enrollment growth of 74% and a four-year average growth of 86% for incoming classes,” Newkirk said.
Tyerra Clayborne, a senior and president of the student government association, said students seem to understand the need for change but many are saddened to see more than a century of tradition fade away.
“From what I’ve seen there’s a lot of mixed reactions,” said Clayborne, a music major who served on the ad hoc committee formed to explore coeducation at Converse. “There’s some sadness, of course, because of change; its always hard. But there’s also hopefulness about the fact that we’re still going to have a school and because our degrees are still going to mean something at the end of the day.”
Converse will continue to carve out a significant spot for women, Newkirk said. When the college becomes a university in the fall of 2021, it will have three major components: the co-educational undergraduate college; the Converse University International College; and the Converse College for Women, a leadership-focused program that will include single-gender housing.
Phyllis Perrin Harris, chairwoman of the trustees, said the name change reflects the long-established graduate degree-granting status of the school. The graduate program has admitted male students for 55 years.
The named “Converse University preserves and expands our rich history of offering graduate studies by expanding our offerings to provide innovative adult graduate and professional study for women and men,” she said. “With the Converse College Women’s College recognizing the importance of developing strong women into confident leaders — with single-gender housing and co-curricular programming — and Converse International College dedicated to serving international students with superior programming and support, this is a very exciting time for all of us who love Converse.”l