One cold Saturday morning in March, Trinity Washington University was hosting an Open House. But I couldn’t see any signs or volunteers showing the prospective students where to go, and on the first day of spring break, the campus was eerily quiet. After walking past the shining new gym, accidentally entering the deserted dining hall and wandering through a handful of gardens that were empty save for miniature statues of the Virgin Mary, I finally spotted a woman carrying a coffee urn and asked for directions.
“You get lost in here, don’t you?” she said, pointing me in the direction of Main Hall, where the Open House was being held. “It’s a crazy place.”
Getting lost is an apt descriptor for Trinity itself, which often gets, if not lost, then certainly overlooked by many of the District’s college students. While most Hoyas have heard about George Washington, American, Howard and Catholic and maybe know someone at each school, Trinity—a Catholic university in Northeast Washington which has an all women’s undergraduate college as well as several graduate and continuing education programs—tends to fly under the radar in discussions about college life in the nation’s capital.
Trinity owes its loss of name recognition mainly to a major downturn in enrollment during the 1980s. But under the leadership of President Patricia McGuire (Trinity ’74, Georgetown Law ’77), the school has remodeled itself as an affordable local university that provides a traditional liberal arts education. Today, the school seems to be in the midst of a comeback: this year’s freshman class is Trinity’s largest since 1967, and rolling applications for next fall are 50 percent ahead of last year’s, according to Ann Pauley, the Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Media Relations.
For most of its 110-year history, Trinity College (as it was known until 2004) catered to a much more homogenous population than it does today, mainly hosting upper-middle-class white Catholic women from the Northeast.
“The typical Trinity girl was one who came from a middle-class background and had typically attended Catholic schools,” Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter Caryle Murphy (Trinity ‘68) said, adding that these girls were “independent women who wanted to make a mark on society.” Several Trinity grads of Murphy’s generation—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ‘62), Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius (Trinity ‘70), outgoing Dean of Georgetown College Jane McAuliffe (Trinity ’68)—certainly fit that mold.
McAuliffe, who is finishing up a three-year stint on Trinity’s Board of Trustees, remembers her college years as intensely intellectual, and credits the high academic caliber of her fellow students—whom she described as “a bright, bright bunch of young women to be studying with”—and her professors.
But as prestigious private universities up and down the East Coast opened their doors to women in the 1960’s and 1970’s (Georgetown College went coed in 1969) many high school girls stopped seeing an all women’s school as their first choice.
“30 years ago a woman could not go to Georgetown University, a woman could not go to Yale,” Pauley, who has worked at Trinity for 19 years, said. “It took a while for that to take effect.”
As more and more women began to favor coed colleges, Trinity’s campus emptied of its core demographic of high-achieving middle-class women, and its application rate dropped precipitously. At its nadir in the late 1980s, the University’s overall enrollment was less than half of what it is today.
“Unfortunately, through the 1970s and 1980s, the impact of coeducation elsewhere—including at Georgetown, most particularly—had a very negative effect on Trinity’s full-time undergraduate population,” President McGuire, whom many members of the Trinity community credit with the University’s turnaround, wrote in an e-mail message.
“Enrollment had declined very severely, from a high of nearly 1,000 in 1968—the year Georgetown went coed—to just about 280 traditional students when I started as president.”
Today, the College of Arts and Sciences is almost 650 women strong, and Pauley credits the increase to increased recruitment of minority and immigrant women, especially from the D.C. area. McGuire is looking toward 700 as an enrollment goal, which would translate to about 175 women in each class. This appears to be within reach: Trinity currently receives between 700 and 800 applications each year, according to Associate Director of Admissions George Walls. The University’s current acceptance rate is 75 percent, and 46 percent of accepted students choose to enroll, according to Pauley.
At the Open House earlier this month, about two dozen African American and Latina prospective freshmen, accompanied by their parents and often a younger sibling or two, listened as professors and administrators alike relentlessly plugged the District’s plethora of high-powered internships. They were all quick to mention that these internships can often be parlayed into well-paying post-college jobs. Financial aid was another major selling point: at today’s Trinity, the costs and benefits of a college degree are never far from anyone’s mind.
“Raise your hand if you don’t want to pay any money out of your pocket to pay for school,” Brian Ford, the Associate Director for Student Accounts, said as he took the microphone. A few girls raised their hands, while the rest glanced around, unsure of the correct protocol.
“That should be everyone’s hands in the air right now,” Ford continued, before racing through an explanation of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), mentioning the priority financial aid deadlines for the District, Maryland and Virginia, and telling the students about programs like DC TAG, which gives out college grants for D.C. residents. He was particularly adamant about urging the prospective freshmen to pursue external sources of college cash to supplement their official financial aid packages.
“Everyone right now should be applying for a lot, a lot of private scholarships,” Ford said. “It’s like applying for a job. You don’t apply for one job—what if you don’t get it? You apply for ten, twenty, a hundred.”
Deonne Minto, an English professor who has taught at Trinity for one year, said that Trinity students’ financial concerns are one of the biggest differences that she notices between them and the students at her last school, the University of Maryland.
“Students at Trinity don’t take as much for granted as students at other schools do,” she said. “They can’t really afford, literally, to mess around and waste time—they have to make this degree count.”
Trinity’s tuition and fees this year totaled $26,927. That’s less than many private institutions, but still an enormous number in a city where the median family income is $50,248. For its size, though, Trinity is serious about financial aid. The University gave out $3.5 million in merit- and need-based scholarships last year, according to Walls, who described Trinity as “hugely generous with our scholarships.” Tuition for the upcoming academic year was recently released, and it was up a mere 3 percent, less than the rate of inflation. (Georgetown’s tuition rose by 5.5 percent.)
“We know that our students are of great financial need,” Pauley said. “We are very proud of the fact that we deliver a high-quality education at one of the lowest prices in the area.”
Despite the openness about financial aid, Pauley and others bristled when Trinity’s population was referred to as “low-income,” instead describing the student body as “urban,” which seems to be the institutional terminology of choice.
Trinity’s graduation rate is around 55 percent and its current graduation or retention rate for D.C. residents is about 65 percent, according to Pauley, who noted that the numbers are “very high for the student population that we’re serving.” By comparison, the University of the District of Columbia has a 27 percent graduation rate.
The logical question, albeit a touchy one, is whether Trinity’s academic rigor has declined at all in light of the student population that the University serves today. McAuliffe, who graduated from Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, thinks that Trinity has to do more for its students because their high schools often did not provide them with as strong an academic background as the high schools of Trinity women past.
“We consider ourselves part of the community,” Walls said, adding that between 40 and 45 percent of the student body hails from D.C. “Our reputation has grown in the D.C. schools for providing the kind of access and scholarships that kids are looking for, even if they’re not thinking of staying in D.C. for college.”
Trinity’s community outreach efforts seem to be successful: many students have even spent time on campus before they enroll. Melody Goode (Trinity ’09), a graduate of the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts in Georgetown, first considered Trinity because she participated in Upward Bound—an academic enrichment program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—in high school, and the program often held activities at Trinity. Karen Hill, a senior at Friendship Collegiate Academy, a selective charter high school in Northeast D.C., decided to apply to Trinity after a scholarship that she won held an event there.
“We had a meeting here and I was like, oh, it looks like a nice school,” she said.
Hill said that Trinity’s Catholic identity had no effect on her decision to apply. Trinity was founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame because the Catholic University of America—which is located right across the street from Trinity—had been providing a Catholic education to men in the District since 1887, and the nuns wanted women to have the same opportunity. Today, Trinity’s religious identity, much like Georgetown’s, is focused more on social justice and religious pluralism than on strict Catholic observance.
“I think the religious identity on campus, more so than Catholic, is faith-based,” Kelly Gosnell, the Director of Admissions, said. “We are open to all faiths and we celebrate all faiths.”
After working as an Assistant Dean at the Georgetown Law Center, McGuire was recruited to serve as Trinity’s president in 1989, when she was only 36 years old. When she took the job, McGuire was surprised to learn that the majority of Trinity’s students were enrolled in the graduate programs in education, including 400 degree-seeking students and 4,000 area teachers enrolled in Professional Development Workshops.
“Everybody in the outside world thought of Trinity as a small traditional women’s college, [when] in fact, the biggest part of our revenue streams came from coeducational graduate-level education and non-traditional undergraduate programs,” she wrote.
As president, McGuire has continued the trend of growing and improving Trinity’s graduate schools. Today, the School of Professional Studies offers Master’s degrees in Business Administration, Security Studies, Communication, and Organizational Management, as well as undergraduate degrees for working adults; the School of Education continues to offer several different graduate degrees. McGuire’s enrollment targets are 700 for the School of Education and 1,600 for the School of Professional Studies.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize that going back to some nostalgic vision of our past was simply impossible,” McGuire wrote. “We had to be utterly realistic about where Trinity could be of service in the large marketplace of higher education.”
Nostalgia or not, the defining characteristic of the College of Arts and Sciences was destined to remain unchanged. Although administrators are reluctant to say so directly, in the 1990’s, Trinity pondered the possibility of going completely coed to allay its enrollment woes. McGuire described the debate by writing that, “a lot of people were asking whether it made sense for us to continue our mission to women.” Pauley spoke about the coed conundrum in similar terms, saying that, “It’s not that we’ve thought about going coed; that’s not the right way to say it. We affirmed a commitment to being a women’s college.”
It’s not only administrators who see the school’s single-sex character as crucial to Trinity’s identity; alumnae and students also appreciate the decision not to accept men. Ashley Doris, a prospective transfer student from Prince George’s County Community College, said that she was interested in attending Trinity because her mother attended a women’s college and thought that it would be an equally meaningful experience for her daughter.
Journalist Amy Costello (Trinity ’92) predicts that the University hasn’t experienced the last of its changes, but that going coed is one change that Trinity won’t see.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if in ten or 20 years the mission would change again,” she said. “[But] I think that Trinity College will always be a women’s college, and I think that President McGuire has done a great job of ensuring that.”
McAuliffe and others also spoke about the University’s “mission,” which seems to be the goal of giving an underserved population the chance to earn a high-quality college education.
“[Trinity] is still offering a first rate education to a disadvantaged group,” she said. “100 years ago, that group was women. Nowadays, that group is, in large part, African-American women in the Washington, D.C. region.”
Costello, who described herself as “an average high school student,” said that attending Trinity allowed her to pursue opportunities that she might not have at a coed school, like serving as class president during her freshman year.
Many members of the Trinity community were quick to mention the multitude of opportunities that become available to college women when men are taken out of the equation. McGuire, for her part, acknowledges and dismisses the criticism that this makes the Trinity experience too different from life beyond college.
“In women’s institutions almost all of the role models are female, and the major student leadership positions are female,” she wrote. “This, of course, leads to the criticism of women’s colleges as somehow artificial. My response to that is simply this: all of college life is artificial, and at some level every student chooses an artificial learning environment that will be most likely to help him or her grow intellectually, socially, spiritually …Women’s colleges present options in education for women who want a different environment that is serious about women’s achievement and advancement.”
In the end, Trinity’s Catholic identity was a key factor in the University’s decision not to let men into the College of Arts and Sciences. The Sisters of Notre Dame still influence the University by serving on the school’s Board of Trustees, and they felt strongly that Trinity should remain a bastion of single-sex education.
“The [nuns] on our board made it clear that they expected Trinity to continue our historic mission to women,” McGuire wrote. “Just beyond our front gates, there are countless women in the city, nation and world who still can reap great benefits from an educational paradigm focused on their success. The fact that the majority of these women happen to be African American and Latina today does not mean that our mission has changed, as some have asked.”
Costello remembers an incident at her five-year college reunion in 1997, when some of the older alumnae asked that very question and expressed regret about Trinity’s changing demographics.
“I stood up in the meeting and said that I supported the changes that were underway and that I was very resentful of the graduates who say that this is not the Trinity they graduated from,” she said.
“I’m just incredibly proud of the women that are getting the opportunity to be there now,” she added. “I hope they get half as much out of it as I did.”