While today’s headlines read “Sweet Briar College will stay open at least another year,” the multitude of articles written since the announced closing on March 3 tell a different story. What cannot be sustained is the Sweet Briar most of the alumnae who have “saved” the college remember. What will operate in 2015-16 and what will likely survive beyond that year is a new Sweet Briar.
Sweet Briar has never been so special it could not survive, but it might have been so special it will have to change to survive. The world around it is changing. But Sweet Briar has never changed without a fight. It took over 10 years and a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court to get Sweet Briar to eliminate the impact of the word “white” in the will that established the college and to allow African-American students to enroll. (See "Thank You Mr. Newman: Reinterpreting the Will of Indiana Fletcher Williams,” in Sweet Briar Alumnae Magazine, March 2001.) Sweet Briar was the last of the women’s colleges in the South to integrate (in 1966), and the chair of the board at that time insisted that the will wasn’t changed; it was just “reinterpreted.” Even when Sweet Briar changes, it is hard for it to admit it has changed.
The Sweet Briar College of the past is no more. Gone is the college where the young women all wore lots of pink and green and pearls, a pinkie ring was the class ring, and a big event was a pass-the-hot-potato type of game where a ring was passed along a long ribbon until it came to a girl who cut the ribbon and put on the ring to announce she was engaged; where, as one alumna described it, “you met the daughters of Texas oil tycoons, and your dorm had a grand piano in the formal parlor.”
Even in the 1980s the college reflected the finishing school it had once been: “Seniors… wore black graduation robes on a daily basis as they strode to class.” Fresh yogurt from the campus dairy was served routinely, and there were formal dances “where the booze flowed among the tuxedo- and taffeta-clad guests.” And the students from nearby men’s colleges frequently hosted parties at the Sweet Briar boathouse on the lake.
This description does not suggest that the college was not rigorous academically. The women who went there and then achieved the kind of professional success that enables them to contribute over $12 million to the college in a matter of a few months did not spend all their time in college horseback riding and having tea and cookies from the campus bakery.
Today there are still two lakes, six nature sanctuaries, a 130-acre riding center and 21 of 30 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. But now the college has a new fitness center and seniors live in townhouses. In the fall of 2014, 37 percent of the students were first-generation, 32 percent were minorities and 43 percent received Pell Grants. As one professor said, “Sweet Briar is no longer the horsey school on the hill.”
When the new administrators look at the diversity on the campus in terms of academic abilities as well as race and ethnicity and see that 98 percent are receiving financial aid and may not have come to the college as well prepared for academic rigor as student of the past, they will adopt changes to adapt to the needs of that population. It may be only a short while before there are tutoring centers and remedial courses taught there.
Perhaps the college will even begin to offer some online courses -- although four years ago when a college publication asked the question “Should Sweet Briar Offer Online Education?” one major administrator replied, “Sweet Briar is a traditional residential liberal arts college. We don’t have any need to do business with online classes. The education would not be the same…. The isolation that online classes create also collides with the teaching philosophy of Sweet Briar, which is to provide education in small, discussion-based classes in an intimate and strong community.” Well, the reality is that education at Sweet Briar is not the same it once was, and it is likely to move even farther away from that utopian state.
There are a lot of new higher education models that cannot be replicated at Sweet Briar in the near future. The college really cannot do what Trinity Washington University, a women’s college that once served a privileged student body, did when enrollments started dropping: become a multifaceted urban university targeting new populations, such as low-income women in the District of Columbia who hadn’t had the opportunity to get a good high school education. It is likely to be a long time before the area where Sweet Briar is located is no longer rural. But while Starbucks isn’t likely to open its own store in the community immediately, it will probably be only a short time before there is a coffee shop serving Starbucks products somewhere on the campus.
The big issue going forward will be if, in the words of Steve Spitzer, the certified fraud examiner who examined the records of the college, “the college's finances [can be] handled in a prudent and responsible way….” News articles suggest that the board based its decision to close on projections made by consultants who had examined the trends impacting the college’s finances. The tipping point was the enrollment and retention figures. While applications were increasing, the number of admitted students who actually enrolled was “plummeting.” In 2009 the yield was 33.3 percent; in 2014 it was 20.9 percent. In 2013 the endowment was $94 million; in 2014 it was $85 million.
Sweet Briar provided Inside Higher Ed with figures current as of January 2015 that reflect the discouraging data the board had to consider:
Sweet Briar Data Points, By Year
Discount rate (all students)
Discount rate (first year)
Perhaps the implications that the previous administrations did not handle the operations of the college in a “prudent and responsible way” are unfair. A lot remains to be seen in terms of how the college can be managed without continuing to dip into its endowment at rates almost no college could sustain. Will the college keep its 54 horses, costing $27,000 a month in food and $36,500 a month for care? Will it find the $28 million needed for deferred maintenance on its once grand buildings? Will the student-faculty ratio become higher than eight to one? As new administrators are hired, will they be able to reverse the trends creating the financial stress? One issue that might present difficulties for any development office is that of gathering donations to make the college an institution of the 21st century when most of those being solicited graduated during the 20th century and want the college to preserve the culture it once enjoyed.
Will Sweet Briar escape the fate of so many women’s colleges? Surely, the terms of the will that established the college will make it difficult for the college to become coed, if it wishes to do so. But in the mid-1960s there were 230 women’s colleges and today there are only about 40. And a study by Moody’s of 13 women’s colleges revealed that Sweet Briar had the lowest enrollment of them all -- as well as the lowest operating budget (though it also had the lowest outstanding debt and the second lowest net tuition). Perhaps the most telling figure was that it was in the middle of the pack in terms of expenses per student. Few colleges can survive for long collecting roughly $20,000 per student and spending roughly $40,000.
It is time for those on the campus to get to work and hope the alumnae keep their wallets open.
Alice Brown, president emerita of the Appalachian College Association, lived on the campus of a small private college for two years, directed a consortium of 37 similar colleges for over 25 years and has written about another dozen or so.
Dean College, in Massachusetts, announced Thursday that it will no longer require the SAT or ACT for admissions. “The test-optional policy will better align the college with its commitment to a student-centered education. We do not want to put any barrier to enrollment at Dean. We value applications from students of all backgrounds and all academic experiences,” said a statement from John Marcus, vice president of enrollment and marketing at Dean.
The most pressing challenge to undergraduate education in the United States is arguably its sharply rising cost. In a 2013 Bloomberg News article, Michelle Jamrisko and Ilan Kolet assert that tuition expenses have increased 538 percent since 1985, compared with a 286 percent jump in medical costs and a 121 percent gain in the Consumer Price Index. Jamrisko and Kolet further write that “the ballooning charges have generated swelling demand for educational loans while threatening to make college unaffordable for domestic and international students. The ‘skyrocketing’ increases exacerbate income inequality by depriving those of less means of the schooling they need to advance….”
The rising cost of higher education in the U.S. is clearly about more than learning; it reaches into the very definition of American society and severely limits fulfillment of the long-touted and distinguishing claim of this country that accessible education rivals hereditary privilege as the path to achievement.
Colleges and universities have tried numerous strategies to contain or reduce tuition so that their institutions are more accessible -- increased fund-raising for financial assistance, online learning, sharp discounting of tuition, a three-year degree, community college articulation agreements to four-year institutions and radical reductions in tuition. None of these strategies have prevented escalation of college costs.
Relying on fund-raising places the university on a never-ending treadmill of solicitation that, pursued too vigorously, alienates alumni and varies in success with the economic conditions out of the colleges’ control. Online learning remains a highly debatable option for the 18- to 21-year-old undergraduate. Discounting has its limits when the discount no longer provides the funds necessary to operate the institution. A three-year degree raises questions about the ability of sufficient academic coverage of courses of study and potentially eliminates time for those activities valued in an American education -- out-of-class activities. And in every case so far in which a college or university has radically reduced tuition, the expected results were not forthcoming, and in most cases, the charges in a few years were quietly adjusted back to their escalating rates.
There is, however, a highly viable alternative that is not often discussed broadly in the United States -- certainly not by the U.S. college and university establishment itself, as it would lead to its own disadvantage, nor by high school counselors, as the option is not yet common practice. The need for options is all the more critical as colleges and universities in marginal financial condition close (Sweet Briar College being a recent example) and students seek alternatives that are affordable. I am talking about an undergraduate degree at one of the 123 British universities -- well beyond the historic focus on only Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrew’s -- for a limited number of U.S. students in the know.
Annual tuition for British undergraduate degrees averages well below the expense of well-considered private colleges in the U.S. and about the same as that of an out-of-state public flagship university. By only taking three years to complete, however, British degrees stand in striking contrast to American four-year degrees that confront students and their families in the United States with severe, lingering financial challenge. For example, the cost per year for a B.B.A. (honors) degree in Business and Entrepreneurship at Bath Spa University, recently judged one the U.K.’s most creative universities, is, if fully charged, $26,000, or the equivalent of $19,500 per year for a four-year education in the United States.
Savvy Americans are clearly noticing this option. A recent British Council Report entitled “U.S. undergraduates choosing U.K. for their studies” states the following:
“New HESA [Higher Education Statistics Agency] data shows a 28 percent increase in Americans pursuing their full undergraduate degrees at British universities over the past four years, and UCAS [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] data reveals an 8 percent increase in U.S. applicants for courses starting 2014-15.”
What is fueling this trend? The British Council in the above report identifies several factors:
1. The strong reputation of the British higher education system.
2. The shorter length of the degrees.
3. Increased competitiveness on the job market, where an international experience of duration arguably counts as positive and distinguishing.
4. American students’ ability to use their U.S.-backed government loans to complete full degrees abroad, when scholarships are not available.
While I previously spent my entire professional career working for U.S. education institutions -- nonprofit and for-profit -- I am currently in a position to gain particular insight into Britain as a destination for university-bound American students. Through a private/public joint venture between Shorelight Education (Boston) and Bath Spa University (England), I have become founding dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship (SBE) in Bath. The three-year B.B.A. (honors) degree invites young entrepreneurial minds from all over the world to gain a mastery of fundamental business skills and pursue their interests in one of four distinct concentrations -- enterprise innovation, design management, social entrepreneurship or emerging technology.
What I have learned in a short period of time is that a British university education can be most appealing and cost efficient to an American student who is sufficiently adventuresome and mature to defy inherited expectations of a distinctively American education and embrace another way of doing things, and he or she can achieve the same results as an American education. It is not for everyone, but it is certainly a viable option for more students than are currently taking advantage of it.
For example, British universities have numerous opportunities for students to participate in club or intramural athletics, but the big-time university experience -- packed stadiums, mascots, tailgating parties, athletic scholarships, halftime shows and marching bands -- simply is not available. British universities also have abundant clubs for student engagement outside of class -- at the university or in the local community -- but again, the students find their way to these activities independently, although often through peer encouragement, and without the engagement of the elaborate and somewhat massive student life staff that exist at American colleges and universities.
The U.K. undergraduate curriculum also commences in a more focused manner than the initial exploratory curricula in the U.S. (To be accepted to a British university, students must demonstrate in a variety of ways the ability to have already been successful at university-level work -- this necessity attributable to entering British students being a year or two older than most American high school graduates.) To a certain degree there is the assumption that students already have a good idea of their course of study, and they delve deeply into it in a concentrated manner.
What is of particular interest to me is the three-year degree. Only a few years ago on this very site, my co-author, Neil Weissman, and I launched into a vigorous denunciation of such a degree. Here in part is what we said:
“It may be that we can no longer afford the four-year standard for an undergraduate education. If economic realities push against our current model, so be it. But before we fast-forward college in the name of affordability, let's at least be honest about what is being lost. Three is usually not more than or equal to four. Not all results -- especially in education, where widgets are not the product -- are available at lower price and the same quality. Perhaps we can ‘get undergraduates through’ in three years. However, what we may have to alter to achieve that end might severely compromise what we hope to accomplish for our students, particularly in areas vital to a thriving 21st-century democracy and economy.”
We identified several aspects of value to a distinctively American education for the 21st century if a three-year degree were the norm for all students, as advocates were demanding at the time (the three-year degree has historically always been available for those who have advanced academic standing and can discover the option’s availability -- colleges and universities are usually not forthcoming, as at least a year of tuition is thereby lost): global perspective, interdisciplinarity, complexity, choice, creativity, democracy, meaning and technology.
I still stand by our argument against the comprehensive adoption of the three-year degree in the U.S. for all the reasons cited at the time. But just as we left room for advanced placement students who had the necessary credits and the desire and discipline for a shorter undergraduate degree, I believe that those students with a desire to embrace early a global commitment through education, and thus prepare for a later life of global engagement quite fitting the demands of the century, and who do not need or desire the trappings of American education but desire something different that still results in the same accomplishment, should readily seek a British undergraduate education as alternative.
Objections to obtaining an undergraduate degree in Britain are historically numerous, but all inconsequential. Some worry about the distance from the U.S. Of course, a flight from the East Coast of the U.S. to London is in duration about the same as that to Los Angeles. Others are concerned about perceived inability to ever return for graduate studies or a job in the United States. This is a most provincial and U.S.-centric comment, as British-educated people obviously work all over the world, and U.S. citizens educated in the U.K. have returned to the U.S. without difficulty to further education and work. The positive employability of U.K. university graduates in the U.S. is presented in a December 2011 report (“U.S. Employers’ Perceptions of U.K. University Degrees Earned in the United Kingdom”) conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the British Council:
“Most employers in the United States consider degrees earned in the United Kingdom to be the same as or better than those earned in the U.S.”
The report notes that all U.K. universities profit for the “halo effect” of those prestigious institutions known to American employers, such as Oxford and Cambridge. That said, the report urges that other U.K. universities engage efforts to make themselves known in the U.S. to enhance even further their graduates’ employability. This is no different, of course, from U.S. colleges and universities with specific name recognition challenges internationally if they are not the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford or MIT. Even the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the U.S., as well as many other universities, are abstractions globally.
And the transition for American undergraduates at U.K. universities back to the U.S. for advanced education is being further promoted by articulation agreements between U.K. universities and American graduate and professional schools. I personally am currently engaged in negotiations with numerous American graduate schools to provide just such a transition in the form of “early screening” agreements, whereby in the second year of study in the U.K., the American students submit an unofficial application to the U.S. institution. Other arrangements will follow, to include what I call “integrated degrees” -- a U.K. bachelor’s degree extended to contain course work jointly designed and overseen by U.S. graduate schools with the awarding of “merged” degrees -- that is, a bachelor’s/master’s degree from both institutions. Students holding such degrees arguably signal that they are prepared to operate in a globally engaged world.
Centuries ago, of course, an emerging American higher education was often complemented by study at a European university. The international university fulfilled a need to offer what the U.S. at that time could not provide, for example, medicine and other scientific fields of study. The U.S. today is having a difficult time providing an affordable education. The solution may well be to recommit to this historic international interdependency, embrace a multiplicity of place for education and prepare as a by-product a graduate who is informed and prepared for the globally complex world that surely awaits them.
William G. Durden is dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Bath Spa University and a professor (research) in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.
The College of Saint Elizabeth announced Friday that it will admit men to all programs, starting in the fall of 2016. The women's college has already been admitting men to some weekend and evening programs. "We have a 115-year history of transforming lives and educating first-generation college students. We recognize there is an opportunity to do this for both women and men," said a statement from President Helen J. Streubert. "Therefore, the decision to go coeducational will allow us to make our dynamic learning environment available to increasing numbers of women who would not otherwise have considered us, and to male students who will also benefit from the mission and values that CSE represents."
NJ.com noted that New Jersey, which once had six women's colleges, won't have any once the transition is complete. That article also noted that the college has eliminated more than 30 faculty positions since 2013, as enrollment dropped from about 2,100 to 1,411.
Last month, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, a women's college in Indiana, announced that it will admit men. And Sweet Briar College, a women's college in Virginia, is in the process of shutting down.
A new study finds that those who take the Medical College Admission Test with extra time are admitted to medical schools at the same rates as other applicants but have lower graduation rates from medical school than do their fellow students. Individuals with disabilities are entitled under federal law to accommodations in tests, and those accommodations sometimes include extra time. MCAT takers who receive extra time are almost as likely (44 percent vs. 45 percent) to be admitted to medical school as are other applicants. But the graduation rates of those who receive extra time lag, even at longer than standard times for graduation. After four years, 86 percent of those who took the MCAT under standard conditions have graduated, vs. 67 percent for those who received extra time. After five years, the numbers are 94 percent and 82 percent. After six years, the numbers are 96 percent and 85 percent.
The study was published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The president of Le Moyne, Linda LeMura, said in a statement that “while it’s true that standardized tests can provide one indication of the qualifications of students applying to Le Moyne, we strongly believe that by becoming test optional our applicant pool will include more students from demographic groups that have been traditionally underrepresented.”
Puget Sound cited similar reasons. At Puget Sound, those who opt not to submit test scores will have to provide 100-word answers to two questions, one on a personal goal and one on a community with which they identify. Admissions officers who have been trained in noncognitive assessment will review the responses.
National poll gives low marks to the college selection process, with parents saying institutions aren't doing enough to place graduates in jobs and the value of degrees has dropped sharply over the past decade.