How can Sweet Briar build a sustainable future?

First step is restoring trust

Sweet Briar College will continue operating for another year, but if it wants to stay open longer than that, its new leaders will have to overcome several major hurdles.

Next year, the college will operate according to a deal negotiated with Saving Sweet Briar Inc., a group of alumni and other supporters who raised funds and fought legal battles to keep the school open. The group and other plaintiffs from related pending lawsuits will soon elect 18 new members to Sweet Briar's board of directors.

Read more: Sweet Briar saved—for at least one year

In addition, Sweet Briar will be getting a new interim president, widely expected to be Phillip Stone, former president of Bridgewater College.

The immediate challenge will be reversing everything involved in closing a college. The new administration will have to woo back students—both incoming freshmen and older students who have already begun the process of transferring elsewhere. They will also need to secure faculty and staff, some of whom have already committed to placements elsewhere.

Ellen Pitera, a Saving Sweet Briar board member, says one of the immediate priorities will be improving transparency and rebuilding trust with faculty, staff, students, and alumni who were surprised and angered by the closing announcement.

But to be sustainable in the long term, the school will also need to address the issues that nearly closed it in the first place.

The school's central challenge is still recruitment—and the last few months of uncertainty have probably made it worse. In a letter to the Washington Post, former board member David Breneman argues that low enrollment was Sweet Briar's undoing.

Breneman specifically points to the college's women-only status, rural location, and small population as factors that dissuaded many prospective students. He also explains that while tuition discounts were effective at recruiting some students initially, those students were often less likely to retain beyond their first or second year.

On average, Sweet Briar discounted tuition more than 60% as a recruitment tool—but nevertheless, only about 20% of students accepted last cycle chose to enroll (NBC 29, 6/21; Schkloven, Roanoke Times, 6/21; Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 6/10; Kolowich, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/23).

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