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…”
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.