Sweet Briar College just closed. Who's next?

Large public institutions could be the 'new norm,' say some experts

Sweet Briar College announced Tuesday that it will close at the end of this academic year because of "insurmountable financial challenges."

Sweet Briar President James F. Jones, Jr. released a video featuring the announcement and explaining the reasoning behind the decision.

That announcement may seem odd, given the school's $85 million endowment, strong reputation in some programs, and regional accreditation. But school officials say trouble loomed on the horizon and they found no strategies that would keep the school open for more than a few years.

Jones cites recruitment as the main challenge. Sweet Briar is a private, rural, women's college near Lynchburg, Virginia. But today's students, Jones says, are less interested in liberal arts colleges, rural colleges, and women's colleges.

Since 2009, Sweet Briar's enrollment and yield rate have declined while its discount rate rose sharply. So not only were fewer students paying to attend, but those students were also paying less.

The situation was unsustainable, says Jones.

A warning sign?

In the day since Sweet Briar's announcement, observers have been speculating about what it means for other small colleges facing similar challenges.

Sweet Briar's challenges are not unique, as Jones himself knows. "The liberal arts college sector is embattled now on so many fronts," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In fact, two other liberal arts colleges have been shuttered by financial difficulties in the last two years in Virginia alone.

Many small colleges have faced financial challenges since the recession, when economic forces changed their recruiting market, reports Lawrence Biemiller for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Incomes have not yet recovered, and politicians are focusing on workforce needs.

Some experts told Inside Higher Ed they tentatively agreed with the decision, calling it "gutsy" and "principled," but didn't want to give the impression that they believe every college in similar straights should close, too.

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As such, prospective students are more wary of liberal arts colleges, with their smaller size, often higher cost, and even their liberal arts mission.

Other experts disagree that Sweet Briar's decision has broader implications for the industry. Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, told Inside Higher Ed that observers should be careful not to overgeneralize. Not all small colleges are struggling, he says—there are plenty of liberal arts, women's, and rural institutions doing just fine.

However, Ekman acknowledged personal concerns that large public institutions will become the norm, slowly squeezing out more "idiosyncratic" institutions like historically black colleges, work colleges, and "colleges of denominations."

Seeking solutions

A third group of experts told Inside Higher Ed they disagreed with Sweet Briar's decision—or were at least "disappointed" by it, as in the case of Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College and an expert in economics and higher education.

Hill says she believes Sweet Briar should have stayed open and experimented with new business strategies before closing.

Some small institutions are doing just that. Liberal arts colleges around the country are trying creative solutions, some of which Biemiller rounds up for the Chronicle. Some colleges, like St. Mary's College in Indiana, are investing in nontraditional programs like online courses. Others are making changes to their mission; for example, Wilson College shifted from single-sex to co-ed. Still others are doubling down on marketing traditional liberal arts strengths like professor-student interaction.

It is too early to assess the comparative success of these approaches, notes Biemiller. Jones says that Sweet Briar considered many of them, ultimately deciding that none would save the school in the long term.

But Hill encourages other liberal arts colleges to stay open, because, she says, their mission is more important now than ever before. "We need to be educating more students in America at the college level, not fewer… I wish [Sweet Briar] had experimented and innovated to address the challenges, demonstrating to others how to productively make education available at lower cost," she says (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 3/3; Kapsidelis, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/3; Biemiller, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/2; Biemiller, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/3).

The takeaway: Sweet Briar College has decided to close, citing financial difficulties. Experts disagree about the broader implications of the decision and whether it signals a warning bell for small, "idiosyncratic" institutions nationally.

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