Why Sweet Briar Is Shutting Down

sweet briar girlsBy Peter Galuszka

Sweet Briar College, the all-female college sprawling on more than 3,000 acres of former plantation land north of Lynchburg, will be closing after 114 years.

The news March 4 stunned students and faculty alike. Forbidding trends, however, had been in place long before. Demographics, declining enrollment and funding quagmires are besetting colleges everywhere, especially those that occupy niche sectors of the market.

In this state, St. Paul’s College, an historically black college in Lawrenceville, and Virginia Intermont College in Bristol have closed their doors. Virginia State University in Petersburg faced a shakeup and the resignation of its president last fall after declining enrollment created an unexpected budget shortfall of $19 million.

At Sweet Briar, enrollment dropped from 760 to 700 during this academic year. Tuition and room and board is a hefty $47,000, but the school had been forced to discount that by 60 percent because it was drawing fewer students. On Tuesday, administrators announced the financial situation was unsustainable, despite an $84 million endowment.

Sweet Briar was known for its strong academics and even offered engineering to its all-female student body.

It also had a reputation, admittedly dated, of being something of a finishing school to prepare spouses for members of the state’s and nation’s white upper and upper middle classes. An equestrian center, the school attracted affluent girls who loved riding. One student was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline, wife of John F. Kennedy and the nation’s First Lady.

For decades, young men from schools such as Washington & Lee and the University of Virginia made Sweet Briar a popular destination for weekend road trips.

But these images belong in a different era. Today’s trend towards smaller enrollments is a national phenomenon. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that from 2012 to 2013, college enrollment had dropped by 463,000. The two-year drop was 930,000, the largest since the recession of 2007-2008.

Demographics may be one reason – that is fewer people are passing through their college-age years. Other problems are that student lending has gotten out of control and students balk at taking on hundreds of thousands of debt just to get a bachelor’s degree. At less affluent schools, like Virginia State, cutbacks in Pell Grants that help poor students go to school, have been chopped back, although VSU seems to be on the mend.

Meanwhile, critics say, colleges have become top heavy with administrators who get oversized salaries for jobs that are hard to define. As this happens, some universities rely on underpaid adjunct professors for more of the teaching load.

There’s also a trend that four-year college may not be as essential as it had been thought previously. High-skill blue-collar jobs may pay much better than ones available to college grads.

Some all-female colleges appear to be doing just fine, such as Barnard, but others found they could survive only by becoming co-ed. College administrators say they had had explored going coed, but it wouldn’t work out. There’s a “save” effort but the odds are against survival.

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20 responses to “Why Sweet Briar Is Shutting Down

  1. I’d be curious to hear what others think… as there are quite a few other colleges down that way beyond Liberty – Lynchburg College, Hargrave, Randolph, Virginia University of Lynchburg

  2. 1) Price matters. Cost matters. I do not and will never agree that a four year degree is unnecessary, even the liberal arts BA that I have — but it will always be an economic calculation. The pricing trends in both public and private higher education are making it harder and harder for families to pull it off without debt, and the debt is making less and less sense. More failures are coming. (And who controls all of those assets after August and what gets done with them? Interesting.)

    2) Shake-out in the market is not a new phenomenon nor is it necessarily a sign of impending disaster. Right down the road from Sweet Briar, look at Liberty, which when I first wrote about it more than 30 years ago struck me as a sign that Falwell was mad as a hatter. A fundamentalist Notre Dame indeed! HA! Well, Jerry was right and I was wrong. Obviously students and parents still want that degree, but smart schools develop a marketing niche. I’m not sure what that was for Sweet Briar.

  3. there’s another tangent and DonR has touched on it and that it urban Universities which are different critters than most colleges in Va which tend
    to be out in the hinterlands… so … a question .. why would a kid or his/her parents prefer they go to colleges out in the hinterlands rather urban schools where the linkage between education and job are much tighter than the hinterland experience which is almost divorced from the job interest until after graduation?

    One would think – perhaps stupidly or ignorantly in my case – that the best chance for a higher education – and a job would be the urban schools where both education and job opportunities and options are plentiful.

    • Having colleges or universities in or near metro areas is significant IMO. It’s hard to have ties between the institution and business and government when the college is located nowhere near any heavily settled area. In the long run, VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason are likely to become more important to Virginia than UVA or VA Tech.

      • That’s exactly right, TMT. Urban areas help good universities and universities help urban areas.

        Even as an alumnus of UVA I’ve often said that the Commonwealth of Virginia ought to keep the lawn, Rotunda and original housing as a public tourist attraction and sell the rest of the University of Virginia to the Boad of Visitors. This would allow UVA to become a private university which certainly seems like what they want anyway. The money could be a combination of the endowment and a note against future tuitions. Maybe something in the $15B range. Then, the state should fund VCU, ODU and GMU with about $5B each to improve their campuses and curricula.

        William & Mary probably ought to go private too.

        Alternately, the state could move its capital to Charlottesville, pour money into infrastructure improvements and try to “pull off an Austin” in central Virginia. 24 US states moved their capitals from one city to another after they were admitted into the union. In 1776, when Virginia became a state, the capital was Williamsburg. in 1780 it moved to Richmond. In some ways it’s probably healthy to uproot a capital every 100 years or so. And yes … I think that same way about DC too.

  4. Ask Rahm Emanuel why Chicago closed schools? Too many places for too few students. Move that frame to higher ed, and add market forces? Too many seats for too few students, and seats are too expensive. There are forecasts that 1000 institutions will close in the coming decade.

    Of Sweet Briar’s $85M endowment, $55M is restricted (rendered useless for the their current needs). It needs $10-12M before June 1, and that same amount annually going forward, according to its pres. Not doable.

  5. Remarkably, I find nothing in Peter’s post with which to disagree.

    A shakeout is sure to come — and small women’s colleges with reputations (fairly or unfairly) as finishing schools are right up there with historically black colleges and universities on the endangered species list.

    The finishing school reputation is probably pretty darn unfair. The one close friend I had who attended Sweets went on to have a very successful career in Northern Virginia high tech.

  6. With Sweet Briar goes my job. For some of us, it has been easy to see the lack of a defining mission, though attempts at fleshing it out have been attempted; As Steve pointed out, without a unique niche, a small school is at a loss. Another looming problem is the fact that the expected income from tuition next year would only cover half of the annual payroll; conversely, Liberty’s on-campus programs have operated in the black for several years- all operational expenses and payroll are covered by tuition income. Even bigger issues are the 200 or so staff members who are being left jobless and the small businesses in Amherst that found the students and their families to be reliable patrons. Anyone know of any large companies that want to invest in a beautiful rural corporate retreat center?

  7. I found this article written by a woman who attended Sweet Briar in the 1980s illuminating — as to whether it was a “finishing school or not.”

    You be the judge!

    “But shutting down? This is a college with an $85 million endowment and a well-to-do alumnae base. This is a college where you met the daughters of Texas oil tycoons, and your dorm had a grand piano in the formal parlor. This is a college where some students brought their horses along, boarded them and wore jodhpurs to class. I am not kidding.
    ” It was also a place that seemed to be in a bit of a time warp. Founded in 1901, Sweet Briar was, in a sense, a classic finishing school that had adapted to modern times. But even in the 1980s there were traditions that seemed quaint, odd or, frankly, rooted in a sexist society.”

    “Fresh yogurt from the campus dairy farm was served daily. The Lester Lanin Orchestra played at formals, where the booze flowed among the tuxedo- and taffeta-clad guests. And groups from the surrounding men’s colleges — Washington and Lee, Hampden Sydney, Virginia Military Institute (only one of which, Hampden Sydney, is all male today) — were only too happy to make the road trip to SBC to host parties at the rustic boathouse on the lake.”


  8. 700 students, 328 staff, no surprise here.

  9. A couple of thoughts:

    A.) I imagine Randolph College is right around the corner. According to wikipedia, they have a total of 517 undergrads and 7 graduate students along with 72 members of the academic staff. I don’t think that’s sustainable.

    B.) I don’t think I buy the “urban areas” and “universities” and “jobs” connection that larryg posits. I know VCU had some financial issues last year due to a shortage of qualified applicants (in fact I think this blog posted about it). Now they are on the “no SAT” route….but whether that’s due to “principle” or “we need students” is an open question. I know a biotech firm in Norfolk that my employer does business with who won’t even consider ODU grads b/c they’ve had such bad experiences. I’d imagine your average Richmond or Norfolk employer would hire a VPI, U.Va., or William and Mary grad any day over a VCU or ODU grad. I have no knowledge of Mason and how it compares to those 3 schools with NoVa employers.

    • I think it might be a worthwhile discussion. The world has changed since places like UVA and Sweetbrier were first constituted.

      that was a time and place (often rural) where high school grads went to “finish” their education and configure it to a particular kind of job area where they expect to qualify at entry level – and stay there for an entire career at a place that cranked out some product that was believed to be a permanent need that would just evolve with technology – not be disrupted and obsoleted.

      a lot of generalization above.. I realize..

      The economic realm has vastly, vastly changed since the nascent days of higher ed and questions about it’s relevance in today’s world are numerous and concerning.

      Some still speak of the “college experience”. Even folks like DonR and others here speak of the “special” aspect of leaving home and going to a 4yr institution to experience all aspects of it -not just “education” – that – that “experience” is different than attending college as a day student or online from afar.

      Now days a bare/basic college degree not in a hard science will get you a job at Starbucks. The three almost guaranteed degrees are education and health care – as long as we have kids and geezers. and food. we’ll need workers for them.

      but if you wanted to become an executive at Kodak, Blockbuster or run a Radio Shack franchise or build Pontiac cars – you’re screwed.

      The jobs today are technology-laden. Whether it’s building pipelines or making potato chips or MRIs – they all are involved heavy-duty technology.

      and that’s what employers want – folks with dual or even triple knowledge disciplines – and that’s not something you really do at an isolated University campus any more. People who graduate with basic degrees are no longer “career-ready”. They’re not at all finished with their “education” … unless
      they’re inadvertently pursuing the 21-st century equivalent of a dead-end job.

      Now – the value of a given employee has almost everything to do with their experience and the college part is assumed.. but college-alone in a lot of fields these days is really the equivalent of a basic high-school type (college grade) education.

      More and more – the areas that colleges partner with the private industry are the types of situations that people seriously interested in transitioning to 21st commerce world are seeking – or should be.

      ideally – you want that – and then a summer internship in that industry.

      now days – those who want to “think” about what they want to do – during their college years – are already behind those who see it as just a necessary hurdle to become a competitive candidate but by no means
      a guaranteed job as others not so tuned in – often find out.

      Finally – it’s _not_ STEM which I believe has become a misunderstood concept in a 21st century world. It’s the skills and capabilities that one has
      to acquire to compete successfully in a world that is driven and disrupted by technology as never before.

      let me give a simple example – a drone. what make a drone a drone instead of a model airplane? It’s a computer that is a pilot but it’s also a camera that captures images, it’s a GPS that can navigate from point a to point b without anything else. It’s a portable cell tower. it’s got weapons. It’s can read license-plates.. if monitors and inspects pipelines and powerlines… it finds lost hikers, it tracks wildlife with radio collars, it crop dusts a crop for 1/10th the former method… it replace security guards.. on and on.

      it’s not about the drone – it’s about all the fields that utilize it – and need employees who understand the technology and understand how that technology has become on integral part of a business model.

      that’s just one technology. there are so many others such as burgeoning smarphone apps … on and on.

      if you are in a 4yr school out in the hinterlands – what is preparing you for this world?

      and it can and does send a plethora of data that goes back to the owner who then feeds it into a big data environment.

  10. The strikes against SBC were many, including not just the demographics and the increased competition for affluent young applicants, but also the desire on the part of many of today’s young women to not be sequestered in even a beautiful rural haven.

    Perhaps the “finishing school” reputation stuck at SBC longer than it should have, but it stuck in no small part because of the social links and economic exclusivity of its students and the extent to which some of the schools it considered its academic and social peers are themselves throwbacks to more traditional times and values.

    Once upon a time schools like SBC offered women not only a strong education, but also leadership and other development opportunities that were not available to them elsewhere. But those conditions are fading away and fewer women are drawn to schools united by strong webs of sisterhood.

    My thirtysomething daughter cherishes the memory of her summers at an all-girls summer camp. But when she was considering colleges she would not entertain the thought of a single-sex college or university despite the efforts of several so determined to recruit her that they did everything short of sending a car to pick her up.

    From a purely business standpoint, it appears that SBC had been violating the one economic rule that every rich girl I ever knew understood–that is, “don’t touch the principle”–in discounting its prices for less affluent students in the hopes that more affluent students would eventually return and restore the coffers. This might have seemed a smart investment at one time, and certainly enabled the school to kick the tough decisions a little further down the road. But the high cost of this strategy is now obvious.

  11. Chris Bonney,

    Great post!

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