Extreme Makeovers

Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., looks like the Hollywood version of an idyllic Southern campus. Pale yellow buildings with white columns surround a rolling, green lawn. But inside the Umoja House, senior Tiffany Jackson, 21, head of the Black Student Alliance, shows another side of the 164-year-old women's college. Walking through a hall decorated with tribal masks, she excitedly points out the spot reserved for a new piece of African art students plan to pick out with money from the trustees. "Everybody has a place here," Jackson says.

Not long ago, women's colleges like Mary Baldwin seemed destined for extinction. There are fewer than 60 all-female schools today, compared with more than 200 in the 1960s, a period when institutions like Yale (then all male) and Vassar (all female) went coed. In September, another Virginia school, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, announced it will admit men starting next fall. But don't count out single-sex schools just yet. Even now, a hugely disproportionate number of women's-college graduates are in Congress and running top compavnies. There's even a push to bring single-sex classes to younger students. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was giving public schools permission to separate girls and boys. "Women thrive in an environment that is focused on them as students and as people," says Susan Lennon, executive director of the Women's College Coalition.

That message resonates in the rolling hills of Virginia, where the legacy of women's education stretches back to the Civil War. But in order to survive in a coed world, schools like Mary Baldwin, Sweet Briar College and Hollins Universi-ty have had to reinvent themselves. Mary Baldwin now actively seeks young minority women like Jackson--in addition to two other distinctive ventures, the nation's only all-female military cadet corps and a residential program for exceptionally gifted students, some as young as 12. More than one third of Mary Baldwin's 800 undergraduates are minorities, up from less than 5 percent in 1982. To attract a wider array of applicants, the school expanded its recruiting efforts in urban areas like Baltimore, Atlanta and Houston. It created the Office of African American and Multicultural Affairs, hiring an African Methodist Episcopal pastor to work full time with students and start programs like a multicultural theater troupe and a gospel choir. There's also a special orientation program where students of color are matched with an upperclass big sister, making them immediately feel a part of an existing community.

The strategy clearly worked. When Barbara Jackson was looking at colleges, she considered Spelman, a historically black women's college in Atlanta. She chose Mary Baldwin instead. "Coming here, I am a minority," says Jackson, a 20-year-old junior, "but I'm also part of the majority in being focused on exploring all cultures."

Sweet Briar College enlisted the most modern of weapons in its fight to remain single-sex: employing a PR company. In 2004, the college launched an ad campaign that increased first-year enrollment by 40 percent in the past three years. The new motto, "Think is for girls" (in hot pink letters), became a call to arms, appealing to Gen Y women who reclaim the term "girls" and don pink with a dose of irony. The school also created talking points for alumnae, emphasizing traits like leadership and risk-taking that were identified in focus groups as appealing to high schoolers. When Sweet Briar first faced declining applications in the 1980s, the board of directors initially fell back on nostalgic images of a nurturing institution, recounts president Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. "It made a lot of sense to adults, but it didn't make any sense to young women who didn't feel they need nurturing."

First-year students describe themselves as independent and proud of being female. "I don't need to be protected," says Carlie Adams, 19, who has a poster in her dorm room that says my fantasy: 2 men, 1 to cook, 1 to clean. "We're not all frills," says sophomore Caroline Chappell, an environmental-studies major. "Don't let the pearls fool you."

At Hollins University in Roanoke, the school looks beyond its undergraduates in the unending search for new revenue. "We want to make our campus a 24/7, 12-month-a-year place," says president Nancy Gray. The school created the Horizon program for older women to finish a college degree, and a two-week summer camp for high-school girls. In 2005, it launched the Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop, an annual one-week seminar that draws aspiring writers from all over the country. Hollins has also added M.F.A. programs in children's literature and screenwriting. "For years, women's colleges were perceived as finishing schools for rich girls," says Jeff Hodges, a Hollins spokesman. "Now we have a much broader array of ethnic and economic diversity." Like the women at their sister colleges, Hollins students are optimistic about their school's future. "We'll be one of the few standing," says senior-class president Candice Dalton. And from where they stand now, the view looks good. With Amanda Milner-Fairbanks