Last week, the president of Sweet Briar College, a small women’s college in Virginia, announced that it will be closing this summer. The news came as a shock for members of the historic school’s community, and though many current and former students are banding together in hopes of reversing the decision, according to school officials, the closure appears to be all but inevitable.
“This is a sad day for the entire Sweet Briar College community,” said Paul G. Rice, a board chair at the school, in a recent statement. “The board closely examined the College’s financial situation and weighed 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.”
Sweet Briar’s history
Sweet Briar College was founded in 1901. A woman named Indiana Fletcher Williams passed away in 1900 and left her entire estate to found an institution in memory of her only daughter, Daisy, who died when she was 16 and was thus never able to attend college. The estate consisted of more than $1 million and 8,000 acres of land, including the Sweet Briar Plantation, after which the school was named.
The school formally opened in the fall of 1906 with 51 students. Over the ensuing century, Sweet Briar established a reputation for giving women a quality liberal arts education on a beautiful campus in a pastoral setting, nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. That location has made it ideal for the school’s legendary horseback riding program.
Why is Sweet Briar closing?
When the closure was announced on March 3, school officials cited financial challenges, caused in part by dwindling enrollment, as the reason behind their decision. Though the school reportedly has an $84 million endowment, it’s not enough to keep the doors open.
President James F. Jones, Jr. pointed to “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.”
Enrollment at Sweet Briar has been dropping for several years. This past fall, the school reported a total enrollment of just 700 students, despite its effort to attract new students by slashing the cost of tuition and room and board. Fewer students translated into less funding to keep the school running and ultimately helped lead to the impending closure.
What will happen to current and newly admitted students?
Current Sweet Briar students undoubtedly feel like they’re in limbo at the moment. It’s already March, which means they’ll have to scramble to decide where to continue their college education this fall.
For its part, the school is working to help current students transfer to other colleges and universities and will begin hosting on-campus college fairs later this month. The school also plans to help new students who have been admitted for fall 2015 find different schools to attend.
To further soften the blow, “teach-out” arrangements have been established with several nearby colleges and universities, which will expedite the transfer process for students who wish to attend those schools. So far, these schools include Hollins University, Lynchburg College, Mary Baldwin College, and Randolph College.
Not going down without a fight
Though the school is doing what it can to help make the transfer process as smooth and simple as possible, current students and alumnae are attempting to keep the college from closing. According to Inside Higher Ed, a group called Saving Sweet Briar has retained a law firm to block the school’s closure, and the website savingsweetbriar.com states that, as of today, $2.6 million has been pledged to help keep the school open.
Unfortunately, these efforts may all be in vain. Inside Higher Ed reports that a spokeswoman for Sweet Briar is cautioning students that they shouldn’t delay in making plans for this fall. The school’s accreditation will expire on August 25, so she stressed that it’s important for students to find new colleges and universities to attend sooner than later.
What does this mean for women’s colleges?
According to the Women’s College Coalition, there were more than 200 women’s colleges in the United States in the 1960s. Now there are fewer than 50, and after Sweet Briar closes this summer, there will be one less. That number has steadily fallen over the past 50 years because of closures, mergers, and women’s colleges becoming coed.
A recent Washington Post piece pointed out that some women’s colleges have always had—and continue to have—that certain “name brand” reputation that makes it easy to attract applicants (namely the Seven Sisters). But smaller women’s colleges, like Sweet Briar, have had a harder time getting the attention, and tuition dollars, of new students.
Despite the falling number of women’s colleges in this country, the outlook isn’t all doom and gloom. Though Sweet Briar and schools like it have faced challenges, others continue to thrive.
“There are a lot of women’s colleges that are doing fine,” Marilyn Hammond, interim president of the Women’s College Coalition, told The Washington Post. “To say it’s a sector issue would not be correct.”
Could a women’s college be right for you?
If there’s one silver lining to Sweet Briar’s closing, it’s that it puts women’s colleges in the headlines. Women’s colleges hold an important place in the world of higher education and offer female students a unique learning experience. For more information on the value of an education at a women’s college, check out these excellent pieces from CollegeXpress: