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New men on campus

Regis joins a growing number of all-female colleges becoming coed

On the second day of classes Ricky Urdaneta (rear, left), 19, and Ben Ruggere, 18, attended 'The Concept of Love' class at Regis College in Weston.
On the second day of classes Ricky Urdaneta (rear, left), 19, and Ben Ruggere, 18, attended "The Concept of Love" class at Regis College in Weston. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)

WESTON - After attending an all-boys Catholic high school, Mike Gigantino was eager to trade in the rowdy fun of male bonding for the alluring advantage of a coed college. So when he arrived at Regis College earlier this month to find himself outnumbered by female students 10 to 1, he figured he must be living a charmed life.

"This is paradise," said the 18-year-old freshman from East Haven, Conn., who is part of the first male contingent to attend the state's last all-women's Catholic college.

Facing dwindling enrollment and a precarious financial outlook, the 80-year-old Weston college announced last year it would open its doors to men this fall to broaden its appeal. The move helped the college attract a near-record incoming class of 275 students, up more than 100 from last year.

Sixty of them are men, the bulk of whom seem to see themselves as a privileged minority on campus.

"Outnumbered in a very good way," said Aaron Avery, a 19-year-old from Hawaii.

The male students have arrived to several new male-friendly amenities, including a new weight room, basketball court, and game room with pinball, air hockey, and a Nintendo Wii video-game system. In a feminist nod, the game room also includes Ms. Pac-Man.

The change has energized the secluded campus and given the financially troubled college a brighter future. Their arrival has also renewed debate about the future of single-sex education as the number of all-women's schools continues to decline.

Mary Jane England, Regis's president and a 1959 graduate, said the choice, while unavoidable, was bittersweet.

"It was clear that if we wanted to survive, we had to grow," she said. "We would have liked to stay all women's, but it just wasn't practical. Times have changed."

The debate over going coed is a familiar one across the country. One year ago, Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia caused an outcry when it decided to admit men and change its name to Randolph College.

England said the backlash at Regis has been minimal. She said the college consulted faculty and alumni well in advance of the move and let prospective students know they were considering the change.

The school's coed status has sparked a surge of interest, as the number of applications rose from 672 in 2006 to nearly 1,300 this year. School officials hope to boost undergraduate enrollment from 750 to 1,200 in the next four years.

"Guidance counselors had urged us for years" to go coed, said Joe Bellavance, Regis's vice president for enrollment and marketing. "They said if you were only coed, our students would really look at you."

Bellavance said he expects the change will attract as many new female as male students, citing a College Board survey that found that just 3 1/2 percent of college-bound students said they would consider attending a single-sex college.

Nationwide, the ranks of women's colleges are dwindling, with just 54 remaining from more than 300 in the late 1960s, according to the Women's College Coalition in West Hartford, Conn. In recent years in the Boston area, Emmanuel, Lesley, Lasell, and Wheaton colleges began admitting men.

Emmanuel's undergraduate enrollment tripled since male students arrived in 2001, and applications have increased sevenfold. Still, males make up just 26 percent of current freshmen, compared with 33 percent six years ago.

Susan Lennon, the coalition's executive director, said many small schools are under threat from increasing competition.

"It's not just women's colleges. Any school that has a smaller enrollment, a smaller endowment is going to face challenges," she said. "But it's not a decision that's made lightly, and it's not because they decide to change their mission. They are just being responsive to the marketplace."

Other proponents of all-women's education said that bringing men into college classrooms will prevent some women from reaching their potential.

"There is something being lost," said Susan Scrimshaw, president of Simmons College, an all-women's school in Boston. "When you're in a coed environment, men and women are inevitably judged by their gender, and we still live in a society that makes that difference important."

Massachusetts has long been known for its women's colleges, paced by Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges, which rank among the country's most prominent, along with smaller schools such as Pine Manor College in Newton and Bay Path College in Longmeadow.

A report published last year by Indiana University found that students from women's colleges reported greater satisfaction with their college experience. They had more interaction with faculty members, more opportunities to develop leadership skills, and a better chance to collaborate with peers and participate in class, the report found.

At Regis, some professors are wondering whether male students will alter the college's tradition of civil, quiet camaraderie.

"Guys make more noise," said Ed Mulholland, an economics professor. "There is something to the women's way of learning, and I hope we don't lose that."

This spring, Mulholland urged his female students not to let the men dominate the conversation this fall.

On campus on a recent day, several female students expressed misgivings about the male influx.

Sophomore Amy DeSorgher transferred from Smith, a women's college in Northampton, for Regis's nursing program, but said the small proportion of men made the campus feel imbalanced.

"I don't really like the mix," she said. "It feels awkward, like the school doesn't know what it wants to be."

Male students acknowledged, often with a wink, that they felt no such mixed emotions.

Avery said he had wanted to live near Boston. He said he had filled out a single common application to dozens of New England schools and only learned two months ago that he had been accepted to what had been an all-women's college.

"I was pretty psyched," he said, adding that he and his male classmates have received a warm welcome. "Since we got here, the girls are always inviting us down to their floor, coming by our room to say hi. Pretty nice."

In the school cafeteria, Vanessa LaFrazia, a sophomore from Saugus, said the male students had already caused one sweeping change on campus. "People take a lot longer to get ready this year," she said. "Last year, a lot of people came to class in pj's. Now everyone's getting all made up."

Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: Changing coed campuses

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