Mills College to the media: Stop saying we're doomed

Speculation has caused 'unnecessary panic,' says enrollment VP

Brian O'Rourke, VP for enrollment management at Mills College, argues that his institution has suffered unfair comparisons to the soon-to-close Sweet Briar College.

While both Mills and Sweet Briar are women's colleges, that is where the similarities end, O'Rourke writes in the Washington Post's "Answer Sheet."

Virginia's Sweet Briar College announced in early March that it planned to close at the end of the current academic year. The decision has been controversial and prompted a broader conversation about the outlook for small colleges nationwide.

Mills College in California is also a small liberal arts school with an undergraduate program exclusively for women. O'Rourke says Sweet Briar's closure has prompted some to propose that Mills is also at risk.

A strong future

And O'Rourke has had enough of people saying Mills is the next Sweet Briar. "It's time for us to set the record straight. Mills College is alive and well!"

He asserts that articles speculating about the college's future have are based on "erroneous assumptions" and caused "unnecessary panic for current and future Mills students."

While O'Rourke acknowledges the college faces financial and enrollment challenges, he argues those difficulties are not unique to Mills. For instance, while it is true that Moody's Investor Service downgraded the school's credit rating this year, O'Rourke points out that "Moody's downgraded the entire higher education sector in 2013."

The school's financial situation has been strained because it does not want pass costs on to students through tuition increases, O'Rourke says, and those financial challenges do not threaten the long-term viability of the college. "Mills will be here 12 years from now when we celebrate 175 years since our founding in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1852. And we believe Mills will be here well beyond that," he writes.

Mills has a $190 million endowment and has been decreasing its reliance on those funds in recent years, according to O'Rourke. And while Mills projects a decline in enrollment next year, O'Rourke says it is the result of a new enrollment strategy aiming to build a strong culture and improve graduation rates.

Focused on students

More broadly, O'Rourke says Mills is proud of its record. For instance, he says the school has a high percentage of Pell-eligible students that graduate at rates above the national average. And studies have found that students at women's colleges are 1.5 times more likely to major in a STEM field than female students at co-ed colleges.

"Mills College remains passionately committed to women's education and the liberal arts," O'Rourke declares. "We are proud of where we have been and look forward to a promising future" (Strauss/O'Rourke, "Answer Sheet," Washington Post, 6/2).

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