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Theory: This being a man's world, the best place for women to prepare for it is a college of their own.

Thereby arose and fluorished the nation's women's colleges, proud places, pillars of American higher education.In 1960, there were 298 of them.

Then came new theories: that separate was unequal, that coeducation best served both genders. Soon, the nation's most prestigious colleges, the men-only places, were opening their ivy-covered gates to women.

As women flocked to them, their own colleges merged, closed and went coed in droves.

Just 84 survive nationwide. But with a combined 105,000 students or so this fall, well up from their low of 82,500 a decade ago, they're coming back.

At Stephens College and William Woods University, the only four-year women's colleges left in Missouri and Illinois, the casual visitor hears nothing of Wellesley-schooled First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as role model, or of sexual harassment, which some experts see now as a danger of coeducation.

One gathers instead a lot of practical, personal reasons for choosing these colleges.

Many students say they went looking, first of all, for a small, personal campus where they would be more than just numbers.

At either place, a large class is 35 students. An art course that Terry Martin teaches this semester at William Woods is average - about 15 students. With just six students, Rob Doyen's course in advanced performance techniques at Stephens isn't unusual.

The college presidents add to the personal touch. Both live on campus, welcome students to their homes and believe in seeing and being seen. William Woods' Jahnae H. Barnett visits classes. Stephens' Marcia S. Kierscht runs almost daily, always on campus.

Not that anybody chooses a college for its president. William Woods hooked Barbara Etters, a 22-year-old senior from Norman, Okla., with its mass communications program and the chance to do an internship at a St. Louis television station.

For Stephens senior Leslie Carter, 21, of Greenwood, Ind., the first and biggest attraction was the college's fashion program.

"I laughed when I found out it was a women's college," Carter said. "I thought it was going to be surrounded with iron gates."

Many Stephens and William Woods students admit to initial misgivings and misconceptions about women's schools. But the doubters soon discover these aren't convents.

Stephens women say that, with the University of Missouri at Columbia right down the street, an active coed social life comes easy. The same goes for William Woods, which shares a small town with predominantly male Westminster College.

A sense of "the best of both worlds" pervades each campus. In the women-only world, "It's so nice to roll out of bed in the morning and not worry about hair, clothes, makeup, anything," said Bonnie Barton, 21, a Stephens senior from Houston.