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Barb Berggoetz (StarNews.com)/NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- At St. Mary's College, students often sit in chairs in a cozy circle, not rows of regimented seats. Discussion flows more freely that way, especially with only 10 or 20 in a class.

Classes are so casual a few students admit to wearing pajama bottoms to class.

There's good reason why hands pop up so easily and the atmosphere is informal on this picturesque campus with blooming magnolia trees and towering sycamores.

Hardly any men are around.

No pressure, no intimidation and no competition from the opposite sex. Just women, gaining confidence in themselves and finding their own voice among 1,565 females who've decided to forego the coed campus scene.

That's partly why some women's colleges, such as St. Mary's, a 157-year-old Catholic institution, are enjoying a resurgence. Recruitment efforts also are up, and more women are getting a college education. To some of them, the small size of women's colleges and their focus on developing strong leaders are appealing.

"I guess I feel like my opinion counts here," said freshman Kristen Carrigan, 19, relaxing at a student coffeehouse. "I do feel more of a sense of confidence in an all-women's setting."

She ventured far from her all-female high school in Kansas, where her graduating class numbered 15, to come to this 275-acre campus just north of South Bend.

"I just feel like this is my home now. There's a real sense of community here."

Though the atmosphere is relaxed, learning is serious business at this undergraduate liberal arts college, where the endowment, enrollment and campus facilities are growing.

It's one of 72 remaining women's colleges in the United States, down from nearly 300 that thrived in the late 1960s. Then, a sharp decline occurred, as men's colleges went coed and women's leaders decried female colleges as inadequate.

Now, only three men's colleges, including Wabash College in Crawfordsville, remain nationwide. While the exodus of women's colleges has slowed, eight either closed or went coed in the 1990s.

Those that are faltering have declining student enrollments and small endowments.

Still, more than three-quarters of the survivors are attracting more women, said Jadwiga Sebrechts, president of the Women's College Coalition in Washington, D.C.

"It is quite dramatic," she said.

Women's colleges educate only 2 percent of female college graduates, but they're making headway at a time when female enrollment at coed institutions is at an all-time high.

Women make up 55 percent of college enrollment nationwide and in Indiana public and private colleges. Among state public colleges, only Purdue and Vincennes universities enroll more men than women.

A renewed interest in female-focused education emerged in the 1990s, when people became more aware of sexual harassment, gender bias and the lack of women leaders.

Events such as the sexual-harassment allegations that occurred during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings and a 1992 national report showing schools shortchanged girls led more females to believe women's colleges could give them the best education and leadership opportunities, Sebrechts said.

Applications increased and national enrollment rose gradually to 115,000, up 30,000 since 1990, according to the coalition.

A significant part of the increase comes from attracting more part-time and minority students.

Indiana's only other women's college, St. Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute, is among those that have found that niche market. Adult women, many studying part-time via distance learning at home, make up more than three-fourths of its 1,342 students.

St. Mary's has kept its focus on full-time students. The freshmen class has grown significantly and total enrollment is up 11 percent during the past four years.

Marilou Eldred, who was named college president in 1997, wants enrollment to reach 1,700.

Recruiters travel to 30 countries and 30 states each year, particularly trying to increase the 8 percent minority population. Last year, many campus events and class discussions focused on Mexican-American women, who make up more than half of the minority population here.

In high school, Nikki Gonzalez, of Corpus Christi, Texas, found herself among those St. Mary's was recruiting.

"They kept pursuing me, sending me postcards and birthday cards," she said after a meeting of the La Fuerza, a support group for Hispanics.

Now a senior, she said it's been harder for her to get used to being in a predominantly white, rather than the all-female, environment. She'd like to see greater diversity here and more interaction among the races.

Women's colleges, which average about 1,000 students, often attract students such as Gonzalez for academic reasons -- small classes and personal attention from professors.

Others seek a Catholic education. A quarter of the students have mothers or aunts who went here. Being across the street from the University of Notre Dame helps ease prospective students' worries about the lack of a social life.

Students say they gain much from the focus on women's roles and issues. Professors make it a point to choose female authors for some class readings and to put women's needs in the forefront during discussions.

"We explore the unique experiences of women in our culture. But we also talk about male roles, too," said professor Gail Mandell, who has taught humanistic studies, a blend of history and literature, for 20 years.

Without male students in the classroom, though, is their point of view lost? Does debate suffer?

Not really, say some students and faculty. More than 40 percent of the professors are male, and 40 males from Notre Dame took courses at St. Mary's this year.

Yet an all-female environment can be "a double-edged sword," said humanistic studies professor John Shinners. "It isolates them from the experience of a coed setting."

But he knows some research says men often dominate classroom discussions -- and he's seen it firsthand. While he says good professors at any college will try to involve all students, Shinners knows females get more attention at women's colleges.

Even at colleges where women's issues are in the limelight, debating them openly isn't always easy.

A controversy erupted last February when a few students defied college administrators and presented the play The Vagina Monologues , written by feminist playwright Eve Ensler, on campus. It was first presented a year ago, then banned by the college after alumni and others objected to its graphic language and homosexual content.

The play, presented on campuses and theaters nationwide, is a compilation of dialogues from interviews with women about their sexuality, the female personality and violence against women.

Controversy isn't an everyday occurrence at this serene campus. But students do challenge the rules at an institution that has educated three current members of the U.S. House of Representatives, company executives and leaders of religious groups.

Linda Timm, vice president for student affairs, says given the goal of a women's college, she realizes there needs to be room for healthy disagreements.

"I don't think you want a bunch of 'yes' women."

(c) 2001 StarNews.com

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