When All Else Fails, Try Cutting Costs and Tuition

Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College, is leading one of the most audacious experiments in higher education today.

In a bid to stave off insolvency, Sweet Briar College is undertaking a major restructuring of its business model — hacking out administrative costs, reorganizing the curriculum, clarifying its mission, and slashing the cost of attendance by 32 percent. In the new academic year, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board will total $34,000, down from $50,055 previously.

That’s still high compared to the cost of a public education, but very competitive compared to the cost of attendance at other private, liberal arts universities. Moreover, as one of the few remaining women’s-only higher ed institutions left in the United States, Sweet Briar stands out with its educational mission: graduating “women of consequence.”

“Sweet Briar is in a very unique position to make these big sweeping changes,” President Meredith Woo told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’re building from the point of almost zero.”

The women’s college, located north of Lynchburg, nearly closed in 2015 after deteriorating finances prompted the board of directors to vote unanimously in favor of a shut-down. Alumni rallied to save the institution, raising $12 million to help cover 2015-16 expenses. Woo, former dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, was recruited to turn the college around.

The T-D describes the momentous changes that have been enacted in a time that is remarkably short by the standards of ossified academic decision-making:

The curriculum change, which was led by a faculty task force over the course of three months, focuses the women’s-only school’s core on women’s leadership with students taking 10 to 12 “integrated courses” that “refocus Sweet Briar’s general education requirements on its greatest strength: developing “women of consequence.”

It also abolishes academic departments in favor of three interdisciplinary “centers of excellence,” which Woo said will eliminate levels of bureaucracy by getting rid of the administrative units. The academic calendar at Sweet Briar is moving from 15-week semesters to a 3-12-12-3 schedule with the goal of increasing experiential learning opportunities.

“We want to let the world know that excellent liberal arts education can be affordable,” Woo said in an interview.

Enrollment has declined by half, to about 300 students, since the beginning of Sweet Briar’s highly publicized difficulties. But Woo expects the student count will rebound as the reformed curriculum attracts attention.

Woo did not discuss finances with the T-D. But she expressed optimism about the college’s future: “Women’s education is only beginning around the world. This is a great time to be a women’s college.”

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s one thing for loyal alumni to scrape up millions of dollars to keep the college afloat for a year or two. It’s quite another to develop a sustainable business model. Small colleges around the country are pruning and retrenching, but none that I know of has undertaken such a dramatic transformation. Sweet Briar bears watching. If the college can thrive by slashing costs and tuition, it could serve as an exemplar for the higher-ed industry generally.

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4 responses to “When All Else Fails, Try Cutting Costs and Tuition”

  1. I wish them the best. I think there is value in LACs and single sex schools, but trends have been moving strongly against them and seem to favor larger, more urban, coed, research universities. The reduction in tuition to me seems to reflect the reality that they were having to effectively discount heavily anyway to keep enrollment from declining further. The academic reorganization seems to reflect the reality that they are now too small to support the traditional academic departments.

    The change in Virginia smaller LACs since about 1985 has been intriguing. W&L decided to go coed and has become extremely selective (and wealthy) and a member of the national LAC elite. Hampden Sydney did not go coed and has been on a flat trajectory from a prestige standpoint. W&L’s decision shook up the ecosystem of single sex schools, causing the women’s colleges to pursue different strategies. Sweet Briar is the one that did not develop a strategy until too late. Let’s hope they can still turn it around.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s the thing. There are LOTS of choices for Higher Ed …. AND people ARE making choices. The “market” is functioning.

    Markets involve people making choices.. there is o “requirement” that they be “transparent”… that is a “construct” of government…

    The question is – do Higher Ed Choices like Sweet Brier ..offer something the market still wants? I say “still wants” as opposed to “wants” to signify that times might be changing …

    In the end – the smaller players (in all markets) do struggle against the larger players who have the resources to offer “more” than the smaller ones that have to be more selective and differentiate.

    Some Mom/Pops do survive against the Walmarts but the odds are long.

    The irony here is that the big fish like UVA and Tech – as “expensive” as they are – offer “more” to more people …sorta like Walmart offer 5 different brands for each item verses Mom/Pop only offering 1 or 2.

    But Walmart doesn’t offer the niche stuff… if you want that you go to Wegmans or Harris Teeter… etc.. and pay more for the option!

    It’s odd to characterize UVA and Tech as Walmart … but the only place to go for a “cheaper” product is what? Who is the Big Lots or Target of Higher Ed?


    Oh.. and I guess Liberty is the Amazon of Higher Ed?


  3. As I’ve said before, at a macro level, I don’t think the market is functioning well. With college costs going up significantly in excess of incomes for 40 years and student debt and defaults skyrocketing, while completion rates have fallen behind many countries, there is a good reason to look more carefully at policy at the federal and state levels.

    Sweet Briar didn’t react fast enough to warning signs or move to reposition itself as other schools did. They have paid the price. W&L did make a significant change (going coed) and has benefitted the most. But other schools like Hollins have found ways to remain more financially solid.

  4. Sounds pretty positive to me. Sweetbriar, like lots of other institutions, was created in a different time, place and …times have changed. A women’s college properly focused can work today but a hundred years ago VT, U. Va nor WM took women as students. The state created Radford as a women’s division for VT and Mary Washington was the women’s division of U. Va.
    And, today, Blacks do not have to go to all black schools the way it was just a few years ago.
    And, the explosion of opportunities for women, African American and others has created a time of challenge for many institutions rolling down the road being fixed on a rear view mirror.
    It seems to me the new president of SBC is looking forward and not into the rear view mirror as she approaches the challenges of the 21st Century. Whether or not her plan works will be determined by execution more than anything else.
    It is great that she is not hunching in the 1920s like so many are today.

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