When the queen sacrifice isn’t enough, a campus resigns

Today a fine college, a splendid campus where many of my friends work, announced it will close.  Sweet Briar College, founded in 1901, will cease operations at the end of this year.  As its president states, “the class of 2015 will be our last.”  Coming up next: “winding down our academic operations.”

Before I go further, let me express my sorrow and sympathy for Sweet Briar’s students, staff, and faculty.  This is a terribly hard blow, and starts a dark time for a lot of people.  I hope the academic community will support you all.

So what happened?  Listen to the reasons SBC leadership gives.

President James Jones leads off his announcement by naming “insurmountable financial challenges”.  Then the college’s board of directors (trustees) chair) gets more specific.  Paul Rice names several trends, “intractable issues”:

  • “fewer and fewer students are choosing to attend small, rural, private, liberal arts colleges.”
  • “fewer women today are choosing single-sex education.”
  • the tuition discount rate is “no longer sustainable.”

That is a killer triple of threats, each powerful on their own terms.  SBC teaches – taught – traditional-age undergraduates, and that population increasingly prefers the city to the country.  I’m not sure that student are avoiding small scale institutions, but larger schools can certainly benefit from economies of scale.

Liberal arts education is certainly taking a beating in public conversations.  And that has helped cause some casualties, as a Virginia paper observes: “Sweet Briar will be the third liberal arts college to close in Virginia in the past two years…”

Sweet Briar College logoWomen’s education: that is certainly thin on the ground in tertiary education.  I don’t know how demand stands in secondary schools, and if that can translate to college.

The tuition discount rate points to deep issues about higher education tuition, affordability, the perception of price, and the reduction of America’s middle class.  Note this bit from IHE: “Plenty of small private colleges have numbers not that different from some of those on the table that follow…” (click through for their useful table)

IHE also mentions that very wealthy liberal arts colleges don’t tend to have these problems.  Once again the stark economic inequality of American higher ed makes an appearance.

Let us also recognize that Sweet Briar isn’t running out of money this semester.  The board and campus leaders see the crisis as inevitable, and are acting preemptively to make the results as painless as possible.  If that’s an accurate characterization, then we can attribute some boldness to those leaders for taking this early step.  They also shared fresh data with IHE, so goo mark for transparency.

For several years Mark Rush and I have been using the phrase “canaries in the coal mine” as we look for signs of what is coming down the pike for American higher education.  We’ve grown nervous as some of these signs have been threatening and growing.  Sweet Briar’s demise is one of those signs, indicating hard times for parts of academia.

But today is really about this small, excellent school and its community.  I send my sympathies, my best wishes, and hopes.

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19 Responses to When the queen sacrifice isn’t enough, a campus resigns

  1. This is unbelievably sad. It feels like the closing of my undergraduate college, Mundelein College in Chicago. But this also unbelievably brave, courageous and ethical.

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  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    …with a title like this, any so-called value adding commentary would be superfluous. If you have not been following the “queen sacrifice” series, now (before one roosts on your college doorstep) not later would be the time to start. Search or check the future of education category

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  3. Bryan: I don’t doubt that this event is an indicator of a real trend. The question I have however, is whether the trend is about the core of higher education, or about the fringes of it? For example, in my prior career as a video editor in NYC making TV commercials from 1991-2007, there were disruptions that literally destroyed multi-million dollar businesses in a matter of a few short years — businesses that had been around for decades in some cases. In a nutshell, causes included clients seeking overseas production alternatives when the Screen Actors Guild went on strike, advancements in computing technology that lowered the entry point for accessing post-production gear, 9-11 attack, shifts from TV to Internet marketing, and the DV revolution.

    And yet, the video production business has never been more productive than ever. It just happens to be that balance of power has shifted drastically from a few traditional proprietary creative services companies at high cost to low cost “good enough” production where expertise hardly matters and anyone can do it.

    Does the closing of Sweet Briar portend a shift in the balance of power where HE will continue as always, but not in the traditional way? Or is it a casualty to conditions that have changed so drastically that proprietary higher education is irrelevant? It’s probably a combination of both, but I will hesitate to take this event as evidence that HE is in decline. It may be that certain traditions are in decline, but not higher education as an institution. We may find that the years to come will have more higher education than ever in human history – whatever way it might be – though much of it might merely be “good enough”.

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    • That’s a terrific observation and question, Steve.
      Perhaps we’ll see a slightly smaller number of campuses, each taking care of about the same number of students they handle now, reflecting overall population and enrollment trends. Or if we return to enrollment growth, the “surviving” campus could each take up a bit of the slack.

      Or: new models appear, perhaps online learning, or maybe bricks and mortar institutions getting deeply into blended learning. In which case this could be classic Schumpeterian creative destruction.

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      • I had to look up Schumpeterian – but it sounds right in this case. 🙂

        The residual effect of this transition is that there will be winners and losers. Back to my analogy: Editors who did not learn how to also do graphic animation eventually lost all their clients. Instructors who cannot adapt to multiple forms of communication to facilitate learning will eventually lose their jobs to a new cohort of instructors who not only can do it well, but for less money and less administrative overhead.

        One of my biggest gripes about the demise of the my prior career was that the professional organization whose mission it was to represent the interests of editors (AFCE) did nothing to promote the distinct value proposition that professional editors offered to clients. Clients naively believed that anyone who had an editing program on their computer was an editor. The pay rate and the editor’s professional credibility fell through the floor.

        If higher education wants to preserve what credibility it still has, it needs to articulate the value proposition of higher education as an institution. Otherwise, IMHO, its credibility will erode to the point of irrelevance.

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      • Indeed, education needs to be doing a better job of this. And we’re not.
        Partly it’s our divided consciousness over public intellectuals. We’re ill served by the traditional ones (think Stanley Fish), and don’t recognize enough the new ones (every academic using social media for this purpose).
        Partly we suck as lobbying, as witness the continuous cuts to public universities. This may be the fault of being so wedded to the Democratic party, who can – and do – take .edu support for granted.
        And I don’t think our version of AFCE recognized the crisis. We keep pumping up tuition, even in the worst recession in generations. We keep pushing out more PhDs, knowing full well many will end up as adjuncts. Many academics disdain professional education, and don’t want to recognize the public hunger for it. And so on.

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  4. geekymom says:

    It makes sense that a niche operation like Sweet Briar would fold. Had it been somewhere more populous and appealing, it might have survived. There are many options nearby that are likely more appealing (UVA, VATech, UofRichmond, etc.) and not close enough, it appears, to be part of a consortium, a la what BMC, Penn, Haverford, and Swat do. Women’s colleges appeal to a very specific kind of student, so that makes it a hard sell as well.

    At the secondary level, single-sex education is an easier sell for sure. Many a parent wants to give their daughter the leadership and learning opportunities that might be missed in a co-ed school. Once the decision becomes the daughter’s (i.e. college), they usually don’t choose single-sex. We have one or two a year who go to an all-women’s college. And in all honesty, it’s often those who don’t have an affinity for either gender. Many women’s colleges tend to be friendly places for the transgender man or women and have a more flexible view of gender than co-ed places. I don’t know if Sweet Briar was one of those.

    As college shifts from being more job preparation and less about the experience, places like Sweet Briar that appeal at the experience level are going to struggle. Many will survive, though, and it’s possible the pendulum will swing back. I feel that HE is in a transitional moment that doesn’t have to be a declining moment.

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    • Fascinating, Laura. Such a rich reply.
      So the transition from single-sex secondary education to co-ed tertiary is part of the adulthood arc, with the learner taking greater responsibility for their education and living experience.

      How do you think liberal arts colleges are doing in response to that growing need for job preparation?

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      • geekymom says:

        Yep, I witness the transition–from 6th grade to 12th grade–first directed by parents, then taking ownership. It’s cool.

        Most liberal arts colleges are doing fine. What most employers say students are lacking is the “soft skills”: communication (oral and written), ability to work with others, and the ability to learn. Liberal arts colleges tend to do those things well, if not in the classes themselves, then in the many extracurricular opportunities most students at small schools take advantage of. What they’re lacking are the specific programs that might be in demand, e.g. nursing. So they’re not going to meet that need. But maybe they don’t need to.

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      • That’s exactly what liberal arts colleges do well, yes.
        But we’re very expensive, and nobody knows how to scale up that kind of teaching.

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    • A different question: it sounds like geographical isolation played a role in SBC’s decline. You reference that with “not close enough”. Would other, similarly lonely campuses be under threat?

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      • geekymom says:

        I think that geography definitely plays a role, though there are standouts: Grinnell comes to mind–middle of nowhere, essentially. What about your neck of the woods? Middlebury. Maybe these schools have a good enough reputation that geography doesn’t matter. I think Bryn Mawr, placed differently, might not survive. It has the advantage of the Tri-Co plus Penn and the city of Philadelphia. That has to attract students.

        It might be worth exploring some of these isolated places and see what their financials and/or enrollments look like. Does anyone keep data on this? I’d love to crunch those numbers. 🙂

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      • Let us know what the numbers say, if you can find ’em!

        I think you’re right about reputation of isolated campuses. I’d add Colby, Bates, Bowdoin to your list, or some others in upstate New York, Many of these also have serious endowments.

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  5. Greg Ketcahm says:

    I think geographic isolation plays a role in student self-selection. Declining enrollment in the historically single-sex Wells College clearly was a factor in moving to co-ed. Additionally, Wells seemed to try to trade on a value proposition of providing a leveling opportunity for women in higher ed via a cloistered environment. I’m not certain that in an age of Goldiblocks and Girls in STEM that a “separate but equal” college experience has the same resonance as 40 years ago.

    What interests me personally is that Sweet Briar’s niche marketing actually produced a negative reaction in my household. While touting their very unique niche of a top notch equestrian program, it felt like academics were a mere sidebar to the “horsey life”. Nowhere was it mentioned that Sweet Briar was a pioneer in study abroad-which to me is a more compelling selling point compared to “ride your horse to class”.

    I wonder if what we’re seeing is simply the market driving older models that fit given cultural conventions at a time (women’s colleges, HBCUs) into a flatter, more homogeneous world view.

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    • That’s a good set of points, Greg.
      The horsey aspect was a selling point of old, and has *some* appeal now. I hadn’t thought of it backfiring.

      Can you say more about “the market driving older models that fit given cultural conventions at a time (women’s colleges, HBCUs) into a flatter, more homogeneous world view”?

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  6. geekymom says:

    And what Greg says in the last paragraph–very smart–and probably right.

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  7. Jayashree says:

    Nowadays education is seen something as more dreadful and due to this many students opt arts degree as they feel it will relieve them from various academic headaches. Education should impart knowledge and should be leant with lot of fun. In that case even an average student will fair well in studies.

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