Sweet Briar College announced Tuesday that it is shutting down at the end of this academic year.
Small colleges close or merge from time to time, more frequently since the economic downturn started in 2008. But the move is unusual in that Sweet Briar still has a meaningful endowment, regional accreditation and some well-respected programs. But college officials said that the trend lines were too unfavorable, and that efforts to consider different strategies didn’t yield any viable options. So the college decided to close now, with some sense of order, rather than drag out the process for several more years, as it could have done.
Paul G. Rice, board chair, said in an interview that he realized some would ask, “Why don’t you keep going until the lights go out?”
But he said that doing so would be wrong.
“We have moral and legal obligations to our students and faculties and to our staff and to our alumnae. If you take up this decision too late, you won’t be able to meet those obligations,” he said. “People will carve up what’s left — it will not be orderly, nor fair.”
The news stunned many in higher education, who assumed that a college like Sweet Briar wouldn’t go under. And the announcement set off debates on whether the Sweet Briar board was courageous — or too quick to give up. Some experts predicted that the demise of Sweet Briar might prompt other boards to take a tougher assessment of their institutions’ own vulnerabilities.
At Sweet Briar, while all employees will lose their jobs, the college hopes to offer severance and other support. Students (including those accepted for enrollment in the fall) will receive help transferring. This semester will be the last one at the college, but it will remain officially open through the summer so that students can earn credit elsewhere and transfer it back to Sweet Briar to leave either with degrees or more credit toward degrees. College officials have not determined what they will do with any funds from the endowment or the sale of the campus after various expenses are paid.
Sweet Briar officials cited overarching challenges that the college has been unable to handle: the lack of interest from female high school students in attending a women’s college like Sweet Briar, declining interest in liberal arts colleges generally and eroding interest in attending colleges in rural areas. Sweet Briar is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
“We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks,” said James F. Jones Jr., president of the college.
Jones said that these challenges intersected. Attracting students to a residential liberal arts college may require institutions to have extensive internship opportunities and nearby attractions. He stressed that the college’s leaders and board considered every possible alternative — including coeducation — and concluded nothing would help in any way other than to delay the inevitable.
Sweet Briar was founded in 1901, and has operated as a women’s liberal arts college throughout its history, known for small class sizes and close student-faculty interaction. The college is considered a pioneer in study abroad and operates a leading study abroad program in France. Sweet Briar’s equestrian program is also nationally acclaimed.
But in recent years, the college has been hit hard by sharp increases in the discount rate (the share off of tuition and other fees that students and their families actually pay), while enrollment declined. While applications were going up as a result of intense efforts by the admissions office, the yield (the proportion of admitted applicants who enroll) has been plummeting. Plenty of small private colleges have numbers not that different from some of those on the table that follow, with data provided by Sweet Briar (some figures aren’t available for this year):
At gatherings of private college administrators these days, there is constant discussion of the best strategy on discounting and tuition policy, and some experts believe that a high discount rate can work for a college — if the strategy results in more and more students (ideally students with solid academic ability) enrolling. But as the Sweet Briar numbers show, the discount rate has been rising as both enrollment and yield have been falling. And that’s unsustainable for most colleges.
When the economic downturn hit in 2008, Sweet Briar initially resisted the urge to increase its discount rate, then in the low 40s. But the class that enrolled in the fall of 2009 was 45 short of its target. Most of the missed target was from first-year students, and college officials believe that they lost students by not offering larger aid packages. A total enrollment that is off by a few dozen is a rounding error at many institutions, but at Sweet Briar that fall, the college suspended retirement payments and eliminated a few positions, and the then president worked for two weeks without pay.
Sweet Briar’s overall strategy has been to remain a women’s college focused on the liberal arts. Other women’s colleges in Virginia have taken different approaches — and faced plenty of controversy.
Mary Baldwin College has embarked on a plan to preserve its identity as a residential undergraduate liberal arts college by creating new colleges of education and health professions. College leaders say this approach will make the women’s residential college financially sustainable, but many professors fear that the institution’s liberal arts ideals are being compromised.
Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, meanwhile, renamed itself Randolph College and in 2007 started enrolling men. As has been the case at many women’s colleges making that decision, some alumnae objected. But more women’s colleges in recent years have followed the Randolph model.
Jones said that, at Sweet Briar, going coeducational did not seem like a simple solution. He said that such a move would have required lots of money for scholarships and facilities, and he wasn’t subtle about the purpose of the spending.
“We would need scholarships to basically buy males,” he said.
In addition, the college — while “woman’s” is not in its name — would have had to consider whether its name would work for a coeducational institution.
“The endowment we have never could have supported a move to coeducation,” Jones said.
Jones also said that he was increasingly convinced that it is becoming more difficult to recruit students to colleges in rural locations.
Before joining Sweet Briar (of which his wife is an alumna), Jones served as president of Trinity College in Connecticut, from 2004-14. Trinity is in Hartford, which did enable the college to have internships and programs with businesses and the state government. But even with those possibilities, he said, it was hard to hold on to students on weekends.
“They went to New York or Boston. I had students who would drive to Boston for dinner.”
There are some elite liberal arts colleges — places such as Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin and Middlebury Colleges — that have the prestige to attract students and the financial means to promote both constant campus activities and plenty of opportunities for urban experiences. But Jones said that it is increasingly difficult for other colleges to compete.
“Students want a vibrant extramural environment,” he said.
Jones said that while he believes the Sweet Briar board made the right decision, he is deeply sad about it. It should concern educators that institutions that are small and have specialized missions and identities have so much difficulty surviving, he said.
The loss of a Sweet Briar is part of a change in “the diversity of American higher education,” said Jones. “The landscape is changing and becoming more vanilla.”
A Courageous Decision?
As word spread on Tuesday, Sweet Briar students and alumnae took to social media to mourn an institution they loved. As they did so, many experts on higher education started to consider the board’s actions.
— Diana Simpson (@DianaKSimpson) March 4, 2015
Heartbreaking. Our history and community may soon be lost and forgotten. Let's fight #SaveSweetBriar
— Isa Bryant (@IsaBryant32) March 4, 2015
Several told Inside Higher Ed they thought the board had made a courageous, difficult decision. Some didn’t want to be quoted by name as they didn’t want to appear to be suggesting that other colleges should make the same decision. But they suggested that they believe some boards may be fooling themselves into thinking they have sound strategies — and that delaying the inevitable would only hurt students, faculty members and other employees.
One expert who did speak with his name attached was Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell University Higher Education Research Institute. He said that Sweet Briar’s “scale of operation was too small” — such that he wasn’t surprised the college couldn’t find workable strategies.
He praised the board there.
“It seems like a very principled decision,” he said. “If we can’t maintain our fundamental mission, we should get out of the business. I think more small institutions, especially those in isolated areas, may feel similar pressures in the years ahead.”
Another who agreed was Judith Shapiro, president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.
“The point is not to say that every liberal arts college in a similar situation should do the same thing,” she said. “But I happen to think that what Sweet Briar did was both gutsy and principled. They decided that they could not continue to provide the kind of education that accorded with their mission and values. And they wanted to face that fact — and that was responsible.”
The Teagle Foundation supports the work of many small liberal arts colleges with which they collaborate on certain projects. And Shapiro said she expected to see increased interest in such efforts. But as Sweet Briar’s dilemmas illustrated, she said, it’s not enough to collaborate or to be able to offer more programs.
“The challenge is for institutions to get serious about savings on costs,” said Shapiro.
She also said she viewed it as crucial that colleges expand programs to inform professors of the economic challenges facing higher education.
“We have to give faculty members a more sophisticated grasp of how institutions are run.”
Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, cautioned against assuming that the characteristics with which Sweet Briar struggled would necessarily lead other institutions to close. There are liberal arts colleges, women’s colleges and rural colleges (and some with all of those traits) that are doing well, even if others are not, he said.
“No one variable by itself guarantees success or assures doom,” he said.
The worry Ekman has is that as the norm for higher education becomes large public institutions, it becomes harder for many small institutions with missions that don’t look anything like those of a large public. Institutions that are small and “idiosyncratic” matter, Ekman said.
He said he was talking about all kinds of colleges — “women’s colleges and historically black colleges and work colleges and Great Books colleges and colleges of denominations.”
The demise of three private colleges in Virginia in the last two years may demonstrate Ekman’s fears. Besides Sweet Briar (a women’s college), there was Virginia Intermont College (which had Baptist affiliations) and Saint Paul’s College (a historically black institution).
Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College and an economist who studies higher education, said via e-mail that she was disappointed by Sweet Briar’s decision — and she urged struggling colleges to consider changes in approaches before shutting down.
“We need to be educating more students in America at the college level, not fewer, so it is so unfortunate that Sweet Briar is closing its doors,” said Hill. “The economics are challenging, but I wish they could have figured out a way to make them work. Perhaps this involved too big a change in the way they have done things historically, and they couldn’t see their way forward. But closing works exactly against what we need to be doing in America. I wish they had experimented and innovated to address the challenges, demonstrating to others how to productively make education available at lower cost.”
Richard Kneedler, who has been a college president and a consultant, said he expected that the Sweet Briar board would face a lot of scrutiny. Kneedler served for 14 years as president of Franklin & Marshall College and was called out of retirement in 2006 to lead Rockford College when that institution — without an endowment, but with debt — appeared on the verge of going under. (It didn’t.)
Kneedler said he didn’t know the details of what Sweet Briar had tried, and that he assumed many alternatives were considered.
“But I look at the numbers there, and I find myself saying, ‘Gee, aren’t there any alternatives?’”
And Kneedler noted that there is at least one case in American higher education where a board thought it made a decision to shut down and was blocked from doing so.
This case involved the laws of Pennsylvania, not Virginia. So Kneedler noted that there is no precedent for Sweet Briar. And courts in most states have let private women’s colleges — against the wishes of alumnae — admit men.
The Pennsylvania case involved Wilson College, whose board voted in 1979 to shut it down. A women’s college, Wilson faced declining enrollment and a poor balance sheet. But a state judge in essence found that the college’s board hadn’t made good decisions, and he ordered the board to keep the college going, which it did.
For a while Wilson College rebounded, but by 2012, the board determined that it was falling apart financially, and that only admitting men (and making numerous other changes) would make the college financially viable. Alumnae protested, but the plan was adopted.
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Editor’s Note: The main photo has been edited from the original, which was taken at Mary Baldwin College.