Sweet Briar Thrives Amidst Coronavirus Epidemic

The Sweet Briar campus. Photo credit: Heather Rousseau for the Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

I’ve long admired Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College, who salvaged the troubled liberal arts college three or four years back by radically restructuring its business model. Hacking out administrative costs, reorganizing the curriculum, and clarifying its mission, she slashed the cost of attendance by 32%. She then built on distinctive niches such as equestrian and artisinal agriculture programs where the college could stand out as unique. Now she’s plugging Sweet Briar’s bucolic rural setting north of Lynchburg as a refuge from COVID-19.

“We are one of the only colleges that can maintain social distancing,” Woo told the Washington Post. “We can be as safe as home — if not safer than home.”

The onslaught of COVID-19 is expected to be devastating to small liberal arts colleges generally, as parents and students weigh the pros and cons of attending college without assurances that the institutions won’t shut down again if the virus rebounds this fall. Sweet Briar seems well positioned to weather another viral storm. Writes the Post:

Its isolation and under-enrollment looks like an asset: With more than 3,200 acres and just a few hundred students, classes can be easily limited to small groups. Meals can be eaten in shifts, with students seated at opposite sides of large tables. And with dorm space to spare, no one needs a roommate. …

Many universities are now considering holding classes outside, to reduce the spread of the virus. At Sweet Brian, that’s always been a thing: Students study the butterflies that float around the campus and the bees busy in the school’s apiary, its bright beehives painted pastel colors. Engineering students compete in a cardboard regatta at a lake on campus, using duct tape and cardboard boxes to design boats that can get from one land to another without sinking. Students can study sustainability at the school’s giant new greenhouse, where, on one recent afternoon, basil, lettuce and cherry tomatoes were poking up out of their dirt beds. …

Many of the school’s pastimes can be pandemic-friendly. Students ride horses, as part of the school’s nationally known equestrian program or just to enjoy the 18 miles of trails. … They paddle around near the boathouse. They wander campus, past the Georgian brick buildings, the pink roses that first inspired the Sweet Brian name, the vineyard, the forests of oak and chestnut and tulip poplar.

While surveys of prospective students indicate drops in higher-ed enrollment overall, deposits from students committing to Sweet Brian this fall are up 20%.

After its brush with institutional death a few years back, Sweet Briar has made a remarkable recovery. Kudos to Woo and the rest of the Sweet Briar community.

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