When Colleges Close: Sweet Briar

In the past week or so, I’ve seen a fair amount of new traffic for a two-year old series I ran on the history of colleges and universities closing. Perhaps interest was stimulated by the news that the board of directors of Sweet Briar College voted to close the school at the end of this academic year, its 114th. Its president, James F. Jones, Jr., explained:

The board, some key alumnae and I have worked diligently to find a solution to the challenges Sweet Briar faces. This work led us to the unfortunate conclusion that there are two key realities that we could not change: the declining number of students choosing to attend small, rural, private liberal arts colleges and even fewer young women willing to consider a single-sex education, and the increase in the tuition discount rate that we have to extend to enroll each new class is financially unsustainable.

Arcade at Sweet Briar College
Licensed by Creative Commons (Vdeb40)

Reporting early on the announcement, Paul Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed provided data showing declining admissions yield and rising discount rates.

His queries also revealed that Sweet Briar’s endowment had dropped about 10% since 2013-14. But at $85 million, it’s still considerably larger than many other schools — e.g., it’s well over twice as large as that of my employer, whose traditional undergrad enrollment is 4-5 times that of Sweet Briar — which led some to question whether the school’s leadership had truly exhausted all alternatives. (Incidentally, when Forbes magazine evaluated the financial health of American colleges and universities in 2013, it gave Sweet Briar an A.)

An effort by alumnae to save the school is underway, but students, faculty, and the surrounding county in rural Virginia are already trying to decide how to move on.

Of course, one distinctive element of this story is that Sweet Briar is one of the few women’s colleges remaining in this country: just over 40 remain from the 250 that were open half a century ago. (In my series on the history of college closures, I observed that the obsolescence of relatively unusual models of higher ed — women’s colleges, but also independent medical schools and teachers colleges — tended to produce clusters of closures.)

Nancy Gray, the president of Hollins University — Sweet Briar’s nearest neighbor in this set — scrambled to defend the value and viability of that model of higher education:

…we are providing an important option for young women at a time when more and more of them are looking for the best educational environment in which to prepare for a workplace where women are still not paid as well as men, where they are not represented as equally and where, still too often, they are treated as sexual objects. Thus, I am certain women’s colleges still have a vital role to play in educating and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders.

But others weren’t so sure, including a former student (who finished her degree at the University of Virginia) who thought that not only women’s college, but other small liberal arts schools — especially those in rural settings — were in danger:

This scenario is likely to play out across the land, as some small liberal arts colleges collide with the reality of unsustainable tuition policies, lagging enrollment and weak endowments. More students want education in urban areas, where they are likely to find job opportunities and a hip social life. There are more students over 25 who want online options and flexibility. And liberal arts is taking a back seat to business and health care majors.

https://twitter.com/mcuban/status/572947794882764800

“All of us worry,” wrote Joshua Kim of Inside Higher Ed, “that small, tuition dependent institutions that lack large endowments and strong brands will have difficulty surmounting a growing host of demographic, cost, and competitive challenges. SBC might be that canary in a coal mine that so many have been watching for.” So Forbes contributor Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry — while still in disbelief that such a well-endowed school was really in such dire straits — urged a typical list of conservative remedies for schools facing similar declines: narrow focus to many fewer majors, cut instructional costs (in part by abandoning tenure), push faculty towards writing for broader audiences, better integrate online options, and consider rejecting government subsidies.


7 thoughts on “When Colleges Close: Sweet Briar

  1. I find the Sweetbriar case to be a fascinating story in clarity of mission. Given a lot of demographic and cultural changes in the broader society. It will be difficult if not impossible to maintain the Sweetbriar mission as a rural women’s equestrian-focused college. So rather than continue to drain the endowment and increase the discount rate, they decided to cut their losses. Too many schools are willing to be whatever they think the market wants and therefore never quite see the point at which it’s best to declare it a good run and move on.

  2. I am wondering if we are only hearing the beginning of the Sweet Briar closing. My take is that the alumnae and faculty will challenge this. Efforts are already under way to raise millions. It is interesting that their current President (James F. Jones) was hired as an interim President. Think what would happen if the current president resigns and an alumna is hired as a new president and she turns this around.

    1. Which may underscore what the importance of John’s point… I heard someone this afternoon argue that Sweet Briar’s board did the “ethical” thing: closing and redistributing the endowment rather than compromising the school’s mission for the sake of survival.

  3. I agree with John’s main point — clarity of mission. At the same time one really wonders about their operating financial model — which I am sure we are all questioning as well. They actually had about 550 students but about 300 faculty and staff, for example. I find this difficult to comprehend. It looks like they were in denial during the Great Recession and were not able to retool for the new economic climate. We also do not know what the future holds. The economy is actually getting better and more people are finding jobs so a redesigned Sweet Briar that has a more focused mission, has diversified its revenue streams, and has cut expenses, could, in theory, succeed. So it seems that they may have had little vision during the Great Recession and little vision now. I cannot imagine that there is no place for a fine women’s liberal arts college — They probably just need to be more clever about the future and move beyond the dualism of not changing at all or shutting down. Other presidents and boards have done a lot more with a lot less.

    I do think we will hear more about this because the faculty and alumnae will have much more invested in this than the Board and the new interim President. Anyway, this is my prediction.

    Of course, predictions about the future are almost always wrong, as we know, so mine probably will be as well.

  4. I can’t say I totally disagree with Mark Cuban’s tweet about the impending “implosion” of liberal arts colleges (although I hate, on principle, the idea of agreeing with Mark Cuban!). But in the case of Sweet Briar, I think the motivating factors are its location (rural) and mission (women’s-only education). The students I teach want urban experiences and co-ed socialization. The “clarity of mission” point made above makes the most sense to me.

  5. If we have a do or die mentality I think he will be right. The question, as always, is how do we change our liberal arts education to meet the needs of our students today. Sweet Briar just was not asking this question.

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