College Coeducation from 1835 to the Present

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Coeducation mattered to a greater extent in the more distant past than in the more recent and celebrated period of change.

Women represent 57 percent of all BAs in the United States today, and more than 97 percent of women will graduate from coeducational institutions. But until 1835, there were no coeducational institutions of higher education in the United States. Still, 60 percent of college women (in four-year institutions) attended coeducational institutions in 1900. In Putting the Co in Education: Timing, Reasons, and Consequences of College Coeducation from 1835 to the Present (NBER Working Paper No. 16281), co-authors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz provide the first extensive examination of when coeducation developed in the United States, why it did, and what impact coeducation had on the college education of women.

The move to coeducation often has been depicted as sporadic and episodic. But Goldin and Katz find, to the contrary, that the change to coeducation was fairly continuous from 1835 to the 1950s before it accelerated (especially for Catholic institutions) in the 1960s and 1970s. Their conclusions are based on an analysis of data on all institutions granting four-year undergraduate degrees that were operating in 1897, 1924, 1934, and 1980. They also find that the increase in coeducation was not just due to a relative increase in publicly-controlled institutions. Some colleges opened as coeducational institutions and others switched from single-sex to coeducational in a relatively unbroken fashion, and this occurred in both the private and public sectors.

Goldin and Katz also reject the long-held belief that the strains of recession and a dearth of college-aged men during wartime were the driving forces in the nation's transition to coeducation, and the popular perception that a surge in coeducation began in the late 1960s led by elite colleges. Although it is true that for Catholic institutions and colleges in the northeastern states the shift to coeducation was more concentrated after the late 1960s, much of the change to coeducation across the nation had occurred earlier. In addition, many elite institutions had already become coeducational prior to the late 1960s, or were founded as such, including Brown, Cornell, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.

Goldin and Katz note that older and private single-sex institutions were slower to become coeducational. Those institutions persisting as single sex into the 1970s had lower enrollment growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s than those that switched earlier.

The authors also find that the rise of coeducation in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s was associated with increased educational attainment for women. The share of women who completed some college was positively related to the share of institutions that were coeducational in their respective states in the 1920s and 1930s. Coeducation, the authors find, is good for women's college education. Furthermore, coeducation mattered to a greater extent in the more distant past than in the more recent and celebrated period of change.