FREDERICK -- Five years ago, this 50-acre campus of red brick, white columns and leafy quadrangles was the very picture of timeless collegiate charm - and in real danger of extinction.
Hood College, a private all-women's school founded in 1893, had suffered years of plummeting enrollment. Whole dormitory floors lay vacant. The college's endowment was bleeding millions of dollars annually.
This week, Hood welcomed its largest freshman class in decades to a lively campus abuzz with students. There were long lines in the new Barnes & Noble bookstore and oversubscribed dorms - about a third of them now inhabited by male students.
"We've had record enrollment three years in a row now," said a beaming President Ronald J. Volpe, who persuaded Hood's board of trustees to take the coeducational plunge. "It's no longer a fluke."
Though a small number of male commuters have taken classes at Hood since the 1970s, Hood officials and faculty credit the school's decision to let undergraduate men live on campus starting in 2003 as the key to its renaissance.
Hood's coed transition remains fresh in the minds of administrators and faculty, but it's not an issue for many in its current crop of students.
As he settled into his first-floor dorm room in Smith Hall this week, freshman John Boasi of New Jersey said he learned of Hood's all-female past from a family friend after his application was accepted.
"I wasn't bothered by it," Boasi, 19, said with a shrug. Nor is he put off by the 2-1 female-to-male ratio on campus. "One girl for each arm," he said as his mother rolled her eyes.
Boasi's roommate, Nick Spicer of Charlottesville, Va., said he, too, had been unaware of Hood's single-sex roots and was "indifferent" to that history. "I came to play lacrosse," Spicer, 18, said.
It's not an accident that many new students don't think of Hood as a former sanctuary of women's education.
In "rebranding" Hood, Baltimore-based marketing consulting firm BMWW was hired "not to announce that they've become a co-ed institution," said partner R. Gerard Willse III. "It was more about getting people to become aware of Hood as a coed institution."
Nationally, fewer than 60 women-only colleges remain in the U.S. today. There were about 300 in 1960, according to St. John's University law professor Rosemary Salomone, who has studied single-sex education. Goucher College in Towson has been coed for two decades. The College of Notre Dame of Maryland is the state's last remaining women's college.
Where Hood once competed with the dwindling number of women's colleges, it now vies for students with nearby McDaniel College and fast-growing public campuses such as Towson and Salisbury universities. About 80 percent of students are Marylanders.
Hood has delivered its new motto, "A Great Place to Be Smart," in an aggressive direct-mail campaign targeting students who fit its previous average student profile of a 3.5 high school GPA and roughly 1100 combined score on the SATs.
Though the campus desperately needed an infusion of tuition revenue to stay afloat, Volpe said he decided early on not to make it easier to get in.
"As I talked to presidents at other [former all-women's] schools, in the privacy of their office they did admit that to get this coed thing rolling quickly you may have to lower your admissions standards," Volpe said. "We resisted that right off the bat."
Many students said they became aware of Hood only after receiving unsolicited offers of merit-based scholarship money. Among the tiny college's attention-grabbing inducements is to offer progeny of Hood alumnae a first-year tuition bill identical to their mother's or grandmother's.
That's partly what lured Jenny Harper of Centreville to Hood this year. She ate lunch in the campus dining hall Thursday with her mother, Janice Harper, whose 1979 freshman year tuition of $7,900 will be passed onto Jenny. By comparison, regular Hood tuition for the 2007-2008 year comes to about $25,000; that doesn't include room and board.
Janice Harper said she was "very upset" when she heard that her alma mater was going coed, but she accepted the change, with a heavy heart, as a sign of the times.
"I'd much rather see it go coed than get shut down," Harper said. She looked around the newly painted dining hall, filled to capacity with families of first-year men and women, and smiled wistfully. "It was a wonderful school, and being all-women promoted women as leaders and having self-confidence."
But had Hood remained all-female, her daughter wouldn't have followed in her footsteps. "I don't think I would have attended if it was all women," said Jenny, a freckled 17-year-old who plans to study math. "They can get catty."
To offset generous scholarship packages, Hood has steadily increased its tuition by several percent each year, Volpe said, effectively lowering its "discount rate," or the discount in tuition the average student receives.
Ashley Garyn, a junior from Omaha, Neb., "didn't even know Hood existed" until the school offered her a "full ride" scholarship, she said. Even so, she was wary of its all-women past and "came to visit before I said 'yes' to make sure it wasn't like you'd only see a guy every half-hour."
Garyn and Harper's attitude toward single-sex environments is typical among today's college-bound high school girls, according to Volpe. In surveys, only 2 percent or 3 percent will even consider attending an all-female school, he said.
"I do hope some survive," said Nancy T. Brown, a Class of 1957 Hood alumna and former trustee who fought coeducation advocates "to the bitter end" until she, too, was finally persuaded that there is less demand for a women's school.
Advocates of all-female schools point to research suggesting that women in single-sex colleges report higher levels of intellectual engagement and student-faculty interaction than do their counterparts in coeducational environments.
Notre Dame of Maryland President Mary Pat Seurkamp says her school is thriving, in solid financial shape, and has no intention of opening its doors to men. Recent declines in Notre Dame's core women's undergraduate program are mitigated by increased graduate and part-time enrollment, she said.
Seurkamp said that despite an improved climate for women generally, some will still fare better in a single-sex environment and ought to have that option. For some women, "it's sometimes easier to sit back and not be as engaged" when men are around, she said. "Whereas in this environment, they don't have that option and they have to step up and provide leadership."
Veteran Hood physics professor Allen Flora said faculty have been discussing since the 1990s what effect coeducation would have on the classroom culture. He said he hasn't noticed any change in the behavior of his female students, but the issue needs more study.
"Philosophically, I think there are still questions we don't know the answer to," he said. "But I would say in general I have plenty of women who answer my questions in class. They're fine with asking questions, and the same thing with men."
Six years ago, Flora worried that the college where he began his teaching career in 1983 would no longer exist in 2007. Today, he delights in campus sights most of his colleagues at other schools take for granted.
"I see kids riding bicycles across campus, or kids playing Frisbee." A decade ago, Flora says, "There was nobody around. It was a solitude. You felt it."
With about 1,430 students, undergraduate enrollment at Hood has nearly doubled over the past six years. This year's freshman class has 299 students, about three times the number of freshmen accompanying Volpe's arrival in 2001.
Tennis courts have been paved over for additional parking. The dorms are in such demand that about 80 students have been put into "overflow" apartments off-campus.
These are headaches Hood College wants to have. Flush with tuition revenue and a record fundraising year, the liberal arts college has become a model for other single-sex colleges contemplating the often-painful transition to coeducation.
"We hope to have those types of enrollment problems," said Brenda Edson, spokeswoman for Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., which this week admitted its first 73 male undergraduates amid protests, lawsuits and tears.
"We have so much capacity in our dorms right now," she said. "We need to boost enrollment. ... We wish we were Hood and already past this."