Mar 4, 2015

Sweet Briar College to close in August citing financial challenges

Sweet Briar College

The announcement came as a total surprise to all but a very few insiders yesterday, as college President James F. Jones began the sad process of closing the doors on 114 years of history at Sweet Briar College (SBC), an all-women’s college located in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Sweet Briar’s final commencement ceremony will be held May 16, and the college will officially close on August 25 to allow students, administrators and faculty to wrap things up.

“This is a sad day for the entire Sweet Briar College community,” said Paul G. Rice, SBC board chair, in a statement posted on the school website.  “The Board closely examined the College’s financial situation and weighted it against our obligations to current and prospective students, parents, faculty and staff, alumnae, donors and friends.  We voted to act now to cease academic operations responsibly, allowing us to place students at other academic institutions, to assist faculty and staff with the transition and to conduct a more orderly winding down of academic operations.”

The news began to spread after students received the announcement in a group session and a message was sent to various college stake-holders—alums and donors.  At first there was shock, and then anger.

“I had no clue this was coming,” said one SBC grad in Atlanta. “My question is why were SBC’s financial problems not made public?  Surely, a campaign could have raised large sums of money.  There has got to be a reason that this was not done, and one that the board is not revealing.  There has GOT to be more to this than ‘insurmountable financial challenges.’”

Sweet Briar is one of a handful of women’s colleges struggling to survive in an era where job placements and vocational training trump the life skills imparted by a solid liberal arts education.

It was a hidden gem and a stunning place to go to school.  The campus, about 50 miles south of Charlottesville, encompasses 3,250 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Architect Ralph Adams Cram, whose work may also be found on the campuses of Princeton, MIT, West Point, Rice, and the University of Richmond, designed several of the first buildings.  In fact, the NationalRegister of Historic Places has designated 21 of 30 buildings as the Sweet Briar National Historic District.

The campus also includes six nature sanctuaries, two lakes and 18 miles of trails, through wooded countryside and open fields, making it a highly-desirable destination among prospective as well as accomplished equestrians.  Even Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spent time riding those trails.

“My grandmother was in one of the first graduating classes,” explained a third-generation SBC graduate.  “She loved to take her grandchildren as small children to visit the school and swim in the lake.  I loved that school.  I really did.”

In addition to having an extraordinary campus, Sweet Briar set itself apart from traditional liberal arts colleges by offering unique educational opportunities.  One of only two women’s colleges offering an engineering program accredited by ABET, Sweet Briar worked  to bring young women into the field of engineering by offering a strong engineering curriculum firmly embedded in the liberal arts tradition of the college.

But money has been tight in recent years, and recruitment has been overwhelmingly difficult—at least in the eyes of a board that could see no good way out of a bad situation.

By the end of 2013, the college had an endowment of $88 million.  In 2014, it grew to $94 million, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUB).  Colleges with similar or smaller endowments include Lynchburg College ($97m), St. Edward’s University ($93m), Queens University of Charlotte ($91m), Roger Williams University ($90m), Sarah Lawrence College ($88m), Hood College ($83m), Kettering University ($81m), Guilford College ($81m), and the James Madison University Foundation ($78m).  In fact, the list of colleges and universities with endowments under $90 million is huge and includes many familiar names.

According to several reports, Sweet Briar very recently pulled roughly $10 million from the endowment because it lacked enough student tuition to pay operating costs.  The school went from having $94 million at the end of the last school year to $84 million today, of which about $56 million is “restricted by original covenant.”  This means there are rules and conditions on how this money may be used based on agreements with donors, most of whom received word of the school’s closing at the same time everyone else did.  There’s been no mention if efforts were made to loosen the restrictions.

Beyond the immediate cash situation, SBC was faced with a seriously declining undergraduate enrollment, from 611 in 2009-10 to 561 in 2014-15.  While applications were increasing, yield (percent of admitted students who enroll) seriously declined to just under 21 percent.  At the same time, discount rates (a recruitment tool defined by percent reduction in tuition and fees) increased to a point that was unsustainable.

After considering a number of survival options including the possibility of going co-ed, board members met in Washington D.C. on February 28 and unanimously voted to close the college.  The question remains as to what will happen to the campus and the remainder of the endowment.

In the meantime, administrators are setting up memorandums of understanding to “expedite transfer” to Lynchburg College, Randolph College, Mary Baldwin College, Kettering University in Michigan (for engineering students), and long-time rival Hollins University.

In fact within hours of Sweet Briar’s announcement, Hollins issued a statement from President Nancy Oliver Gray, characterized by some SBC alums as “tasteless” and “rubbing salt into the wound,” in which she distanced the university from Sweet Briar’s problems by boasting of a strong endowment and establishing that Hollins’ recent fundraising efforts brought in $162 million—“the largest of any southern women’s college.”  

There’s no question that private liberal arts colleges are experiencing problems, and a women’s college in this environment can expect even greater challenges.  But the suddenness of the announcement and the total absence of forewarning for students, faculty, administrators, and alums make the Sweet Briar decision to close in six short months a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

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