The First 10 U.S. Colleges to Go Co-Ed
The integration of the sexes in America’s universities dates back to the 19th century. Between 1837 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the country went from having zero coeducational institutions to more than twenty. It was just one part of a vast revolution in education taking place at the time, with reformers like Horace Mann fighting for universal public education of minors, plus many (then-radical) innovations in higher ed that we today take for granted.
First it took a push to found separate entities that would educate women (and blacks) at all, but then integrated schools began to crop up. By the end of the century, most new schools were coeducational, but some of America’s most respected institutions dragged their feet. Of the eight Ivy League schools, for example, the only mixed-sex one was the last one founded, Cornell, in 1865. The others stuck with “coordinate colleges” (all-female affiliates) until shockingly late, with Columbia the last to integrate in 1982. In that light, the pre-Civil War coed colleges look very forward-thinking indeed. Here are the 10 U.S. schools that were the first to accept both genders.
Oberlin is a true pathbreaker in American education. This liberal arts college in Ohio was the first school to accept not only women as well as men, in 1837, but black students as well as white, in 1835. It was founded by two Presbyterian ministers, Philo P. Stewart and John J. Shipherd, who once described his school’s iconoclastic nature this way: “Oberlin is peculiar in that which is good.” Oberlin’s prominence in the abolition movement, with students and faculty involved in both the Underground Railroad and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, reminds us of the religious roots of 19th-century progressivism, which will be a recurring theme on this list.
Hillsdale, in the Michigan town of the same name, was another hotbed of abolitionism, founded by Freewill Baptists in 1844, and was the first school to ban all discrimination based on sex, race, or religion in its charter. In an interesting contrast to its contemporary Oberlin (and a great case study in the complexities, reversals, and contradictions of American political history), Hillsdale has become one of the most fervent incubators of serious right-wing scholarship. It accepts no money from the government, houses the archives of libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, and publishes the influential conservative journal Imprimis.
Franklin College, of Franklin, Ind., was founded in 1834 and became the third U.S. institution to admit women for four-year degrees in 1845. Its religious affiliation was Baptist and it “maintains a voluntary association with the American Baptist Churches USA.” It maintains a student body of just over 1,000 in order to preserve small class sizes and the close interaction students can enjoy with their professors.
Baylor is another Baptist school and the oldest university in Texas. Its gender journey has been complicated. When it was established by the Republic (before statehood) in 1845, its campus in Independence, Texas, featured coeducation in the same building but separate classes. However, its coeducational status did not last. In 1851, President Rev. Rufus Columbus Burleson split the two into segregated buildings, and then moved to Waco University, which absorbed Baylor in 1885 to create the all-male Baylor University, which quickly went coed anyway a couple years later. Meanwhile, the women’s part of Baylor became the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, which moved to Belton, Texas, started a limited men’s program in 1922, and has been fully coed since 1971.
Founded by the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in Westerville, Ohio, in 1847, Otterbein was the first college that opened with women as both faculty and students. It was another Ohio school involved in the liberation of runaway slaves. In 1941 and 1942, Otterbein would become a haven for young Japanese-Americans transferred from the nation’s wartime internment camps. This school takes great pride in its inclusive tradition and values, and has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1968, after the Brethren merged into that organization. [An honorable mention is due here to New-York Central College, McGrawville: this racially integrated school opened coed in 1849, but only lasted 12 years due to an interracial sex scandal and general bigotry. Unlike these 10 schools, it has not survived in any form.]
Waynesburg, Penn., is the home of this Presbyterian university founded in 1849. Its classrooms became coeducational in 1851, and though its first graduating class was all-female, that was because the women’s seminary had opened before the main school. Waynesburg issued its first full bachelor’s degrees to women in 1857. Today it has kept its religious affiliation and is 51% female, which mirrors the overall population but is below the recent national average for higher ed, which has seen a troubling drop in male participation.
Another Pennsylvania Presbyterian institution, this college in New Wilmington, Westminster College was founded as a wholly coeducational school in 1852. In addition to its innovation in mixed-sex education, Westminster has always emphasized science to an extent that is unusual among smaller liberal arts colleges, first opening fully equipped laboratory classrooms in 1896. In a 2010 issue of Forbes magazine, Westminster was named “Best College for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” in the United States.
A real Oregon trailblazer, Willamette was founded in Salem in 1842, making it the oldest college in the American West. The earliest iteration of the school was a Methodist missionary’s project to “educate and civilize” the Native American population. Though centers of higher education were obviously few on the frontier, gender equality often found more room for advancement, since customs had not been set in stone (so Wyoming, for instance, became the first place where women could vote). Willamette offered coeducation at the secondary level from the beginning, and college classes were integrated in 1853.
Like Willamette, Lawrence went fully coed in 1853, but had mixed-sex classes at lower levels from its founding in 1847. Although its co-founders, William Harkness Sampson (also first president) and Henry R. Colman, were both Methodist ministers, benefactor and namesake Amos Adams Lawrence (who later bankrolled the University of Kansas, in a town named for him) was an Episcopalian abolitionist, so it seems Lawrence can lay claim to the distinction of being the first coeducational school in America without a religious affiliation.
If you click through or mouse over that link, you’ll notice that Antioch, uniquely among these schools, has a web address that ends in .org instead of .edu. Why is that? It’s a long story, but the short version is: after becoming Antioch University and expanding to more than 30 campuses nationwide, the original Antioch College fell into neglect and broke off from the rest of the network after a long dispute, shutting its doors temporarily in 2008. It is now in its second year of resumed operations and seeking reaccreditation. Antioch became the 10th surviving U.S. school to go coed in 1853, after being founded by a group called the Christian Connection in 1850 … though Unitarians were also involved and sectarian conflicts helped lead to its first closing in 1862. Let’s hope it survives this rocky period too, and gets to retake its place as a leader in education. After all, its motto, given by first president and education legend Horace Mann, is “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”