As media response and alumnae outrage grew after last week’s announcement that Sweet Briar College will soon close its doors, the focus of the debate centered around whether the college leadership was courageous in seeing a dismal future and responding promptly, or precipitous in abandoning hope before it was truly necessary. No matter the answer, it seems obvious to an outside observer that Sweet Briar could have taken greater advantage of fundamental marketing principles and more effective student recruitment strategies as administrators considered this decision.
Only independent research, both quantitative and qualitative, can provide a true road map for success. It’s hard to know what kind of research the college had about students, parents and alumnae -- and how to attract their engagement and support. I do know that as recently as 2010, Forbes put the college near the top of a list of higher ed institutions facing financial problems, based primarily on successive years of operating loss. (The college’s PR man at the time dismissed the analysis as “selective and unscientific.") The numbers weren’t lying, and a five-year window is sufficient to explore a lot of alternatives.
Sweet Briar, and colleges like it, must accept what research is telling them. And then use every tool in the toolbox to improve appeal, value, reach and yield.
A number of colleges have been and are being successful in the market conditions Sweet Briar leadership articulated as those that required its closing. The Seven Sisters colleges remain highly selective, boast exceptional alumnae support and continue to invent their way into a vital future while maintaining, for the most part, their single-sex character. Many liberal arts colleges -- Grinnell and Kenyon spring immediately to mind, as do Bowdoin, Beloit and College of the Ozarks -- don’t let their rural locations inhibit their success.
But Sweet Briar came to the conclusion that the writing on the wall said, “Enough!” What data drove this decision? What futures were imagined -- and researched -- that led to an inescapable conclusion that closing was the only option? With the level of alumnae outrage -- signaled by more than $2 million in pledges as of this writing -- greater transparency around the data that drove the decision would benefit both the college and its stakeholders.
What research indicated that going coed was unfeasible?
Given the choice, would alumnae prefer that the college go coed or go out of business?
Were new majors and/or focus areas considered that would have built on Sweet Briar’s existing engineering program in order to increase its appeal to young women who wanted more “direct to market” degrees? What was the cost of developing those programs?
Could the college have sold part of its 3,250-acre campus in order to invest the proceeds of that sale in program development, scholarship support for female valedictorians and other high-potential students, or other repositioning programs?
Would a name change -- perhaps coupled with the development of coed options or new programs -- have triggered the kind of awareness and visibility that would give the college a near-term boost and strengthen its position in the marketplace?
A name change is no panacea, but it can bring attention to the authentic character of an institution whose name is problematic. A decade ago, our agency helped Western Maryland College (quick quiz: public or private? What part of the state?) change its name to McDaniel College. While there was some consternation at the time, the college’s board was able to document the need for the change based on 20 years of market research that showed clearly that the name was creating confusion in the marketplace, and make the courageous decision to rename the college. Renaming brought it new attention and gave the new McDaniel a platform to reassert its role as a quality private liberal arts college on the outskirts of Baltimore -- an extremely helpful outcome.
In another instance, Lipman Hearne was brought in to assess the name of an institution in the American Southwest and was able to document that its name was creating problems. In this case, the board had to balance the concerns of alumni -- who were resistant to the change -- and of prospective students, who expressed real confusion about the nature and character of the institution based on its “misdirection” name. The board chose not to change, and the institution must explain itself anew to a new crop of prospects to this day. While this may have been the right decision, it’s a costly one, in that recruitment and enrollment efforts have to start by saying, “No, we’re not that” before they can commence saying what they truly are.
Would a name change, by itself, have solved Sweet Briar’s problems? Probably not. But a name change coupled with a revisioning process, the development of new programs and/or institutional profile, a rebranding of the institution, and a commitment to transparency by volunteer and administrative leadership could have provided sufficient leeway for the college to redefine itself -- profitably -- into the future. Because whether they are for-profit or not, higher ed institutions must respond to market and business realities, and adapt accordingly.
Whatever Sweet Briar does going forward, it faces one transcendent imperative: do right by your students. They are experiencing a traumatic change at a time when they thought they'd be focused on their own futures and opportunities. If there’s room in the unrestricted endowment, or in scholarship endowment, use those funds to underwrite tuition and other costs through to graduation at the schools these young women choose to attend. In that way, the authentic brand identity of Sweet Briar -- a college that cares for the women it takes into its family -- will be sustained after the college’s passing.
Robert M. Moore is president and chief executive officer of Lipman Hearne.
The closing of Sweet Briar College will, I expect, have little impact on other small, private, rural colleges with small endowments. Most will keep their heads in the sand, live on in a state of denial and continue to produce strategic plans that say little more than “Hope.”
Time after time I have heard college presidents, vice presidents for finance and trustees claim, “We’ve had tough times before and we got through those; we’ll get through these.” The first time I heard this statement was in 1997; the president at Sue Bennett College in Kentucky made that grand pronouncement the day before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools notified him that none of the appeals to maintain accreditation of the college had been approved and federal funding would not be forthcoming -- money designated to pay faculty salaries for the last two months of the semester. Talk about spending the last dollar before you close.
Discussion on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's news podcast.
Still, the closing of Sweet Briar offers a guide to closing that deserves preservation in some just-in-case files. At least Sweet Briar avoided the disaster Sue Bennett faced when the college ran out of money in the middle of a semester.
Perhaps Sweet Briar learned some lessons from one example in my book Cautionary Tales: Strategy Lessons from Struggling Colleges (Stylus). The description of the 1997 closing of Saint Mary’s College in Raleigh, N.C., is remarkably similar to the 2015 closing of Sweet Briar. For almost a decade, the president and board at Saint Mary’s sought solutions to declining numbers of students and reluctance by donors to make financial contributions at levels that would sustain operations without strong enrollments. Finally, shortly before SACS was scheduled to visit and with freshman enrollment for the coming year lower than ever, the board agreed that closing was inevitable. Closing before the college lost accreditation and had to close was determined to be the best alternative for preserving the good reputation the college had maintained for over 100 years.
Just as at Saint Mary’s, there were no rumors at Sweet Briar about a possible closing. Yet there is reason (based on comments about studies conducted internally and by external consulting teams) to believe that the trustees at Sweet Briar spent a significant amount of time looking at data and considering various options before making the decision. One interesting piece of advice the president at Saint Mary’s offered to colleges considering closing was to develop a generous severance package for the president; otherwise he or she would spend years resisting efforts to close the college to avoid becoming unemployed. Perhaps Sweet Briar found a less expensive way to provide leadership during closing: hiring an interim president.
When the announcement at Sweet Briar came, it came -- as it had come at Saint Mary’s -- to students, faculty, alumnae and the press at about the same time of year, just before spring break.
What Saint Mary’s College had that Sweet Briar does not have was a preparatory school for high school students. Saint Mary’s opened as a school in 1834 and maintained those programs when it became a college in 1927. Many of the college faculty and staff could continue working at Saint Mary’s School after the college closed, and there were no issues about what to do with the endowment or property. Today the school offers one of the most prominent preparatory programs for girls in the nation. And those I talked with who had been critical of the decision to close the college in 1997 now call that decision “honest” and “correct” and “courageous” and “bold.” Unfortunately, not many small private liberal arts colleges have a prep school that can be energized by ending the higher education offerings.
What Sweet Briar has that Saint Mary’s College did not have is property to sell and a relatively strong endowment, some of which can be used to provide severance packages and scholarships and some of which might help the college find a way to continue to honor the traditions of Sweet Briar. Just before Barat College formally closed, the president there led a campaign to establish a modest foundation with some of the endowment funds and profit from the sale of the property; she then became the president of the foundation. Today, the Web site of the Barat Education Foundation indicates a mission of “continuing and adapting the heritage and legacy of Barat College to our 21st-century world.”
There is no reason I know that would keep Sweet Briar from doing something similar once all its financial commitments are met; the alumnae can then contribute to programs designed to perpetuate the mission of their alma mater. But this is only one suggestion for honoring the long history and admirable traditions of Sweet Briar.
One of the colleges I have written about is Wilson College, which in 1979 failed to do what Saint Mary’s and Sweet Briar have done. Once word got out that the board was considering closing Wilson while there was still money available in the endowment and well-maintained property that could be sold to provide severance packages and scholarships for students to attend other colleges, students and alumni and a judge up for re-election managed to prevent the closing with a legal ruling. Today that college is still struggling -- having discussions similar to those in 1979 and facing a time in the near future when a major debt of the college will come due. Alumnae and students are complaining about the college's switch to coeducation, and faculty and staff are adding programs to attract new students.
Deciding to close a college is difficult and every college has conditions and faces circumstances which make its decision-making process different from that at others. Sweet Briar complained about not having a Starbucks nearby. One college I worked with was 30 miles from the closest motel, yet it continues strong. Many rural colleges need to continue to exist because they are so isolated; their students come primarily from surrounding counties, probably would not go to college if there was not one near their homes and can avoid a life of poverty by obtaining a four-year degree.
William Bowen (who served as president at Princeton University and at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) wrote the foreword for my book Cautionary Tales. Here are his cautions for colleges under the threats of financial instability:
“Acknowledge problems and avoid an ‘in-denial’ existence.”
Do “not be too quick to extrapolate ‘good news,’ such as evidence of enrollment growth. Circumstances can change rapidly....”
Find not just a new direction; “...find a new direction that is sustainable.”
“Avoid ‘cures’ that are worse than the disease.”
Do not “rely too much on the charismatic leadership of one person -- who may leave, retire, die.”
Do not squander or impair (by borrowing unwisely) assets.
Do “not hesitate to celebrate what their college has achieved.... But no one should worship the past unduly.” Remember naturalist John Burroughs’s comment: “New times always. Old time we cannot keep.”
Do not be “forced to close” and lose “the capacity for wise choice."
Know that “‘death with dignity’ can be a good outcome.”
There may be no best way to close a college, but it is certain that following every college closing, there will be a lot of anguish. As the president of Saint Mary’s said, “The bitterness won’t end until the last alum dies.” But I wonder if all the mergers, sales of institutions, reducing numbers of faculty and staff, new online courses and graduate degrees, and “destroying the soul of the college” have really “saved” those colleges that have taken those routes to stay open -- if turning the keys of the campus over to someone else is really better than closing -- if sacrificing the quality and traditions of the college leaves the college but a shadow of itself.
Perhaps the most relevant question of all is the one asked by the editor of Change Magazine in 1979: “Is it, in fact, in the best ecological interests of higher education to have every marginal institution stay alive at any cost?”
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.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the admissions office is always excited about the day applicants are notified. There is extra excitement this year because that will take place on Pi Day (March 14, since it is represented by the digits that start pi -- 3.14 -- and which is notable this year as one can extend it for more of pi, 3.1415). But even amid all of that excitement, M.I.T. is imagining a world where applicants won't have to log on to a Web site to learn decisions, but will be notified by drone. While this video, released by M.I.T., features some simulation, the star of the first half is Stu Schmill, IRL dean of admissions at M.I.T.
Wellesley College announced Thursday that it will admit transgender women. In addition to admitting those who were born as women and consider themselves women, the college will now "consider for admission any applicant who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman."
At the Education Writers Association’s conference in Nashville last year, higher education writers crowded into Scott Jaschik's session, "Top 10 Higher Education Stories You Should Be Covering This Year."
It's always a highlight. Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, does a quick rundown of emerging trends in higher education. Many of the year's selections were already in play, like campus sexual assault and the possibility of unionization of college athletes.
One seemed foreboding: Private colleges on the brink. Jaschik advised us to look for some small colleges to shut their doors.
I filed it away, thinking I might take a closer look at some of North Carolina's colleges.
I didn't dream he'd be talking about mine.
Sweet Briar College, a women's liberal arts college in central Virginia, announced Tuesday that it would close in August. Current students will have to transfer, and the board leaders will have to figure out what to do with 3,250 bucolic, rolling acres, including a gigantic indoor riding ring for Sweet Briar's nationally acclaimed equestrian program.
I attended Sweet Briar from 1981 to 1983 before transferring to my ultimate alma mater, the University of Virginia, from which I graduated in 1985.
At SBC, I made lifelong friends and received a rigorous education in an atmosphere of small classes where you couldn't hide. You were expected to do the work, speak out in class, think on your feet. Participate in the arts. Dive into science. Write. Analyze. Think.
The very idea that Sweet Briar could go under is simply stunning to me -- and to hundreds of angry alumnae storming Facebook right now. Yes, all women's colleges have challenges these days, and I knew that a few years back Sweet Briar considered going coed and decided against it.
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.
School colors were pink and green. The sports teams were called the Vixens (with a cute fox mascot). Seniors, and only seniors, wore black graduation robes on a daily basis as they strode to class. The robes were handed down, and it wasn’t unusual to have four or five names sewn inside. Of course, the robes were often festooned with obnoxious buttons and stickers, but it gave the place an air of Oxford or Cambridge to see all those academic garments about.
Sometimes, signs would appear in the dining hall announcing a "ring game" on the quad after lunch. Seniors would form a circle holding a ribbon from which dangled a diamond ring. The women would push the ring to the next student as it went by in a fast, hot-potato game. After the third go-round, one woman would pull out a pair of scissors, cut the ribbon and put the ring on her finger, to squeals of delight. This was how engagements were announced.
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.
Besides the inevitable, sometimes silly, traditions that you get at a single-sex college, Sweet Briar was ahead of its time in academics. It was only the second women's college to offer engineering, and its study abroad program in France is one of the nation's oldest and most respected.
The college regularly brought impressive women to campus for speeches and mentoring opportunities. I remember seeing Jane Goodall there, and an alumna who was a top executive at the American Stock Exchange. They were women who made history and had messages for us.
Despite all of this, I felt I needed more than Sweet Briar could give. I had come from a small town and a high school class of just 61 students. I wanted the big university experience. U.Va., about an hour away, beckoned. I left Sweet Briar and didn't look back, except for attending the graduation of my friends.
Over the years, I guess, more and more students had similar feelings.
Sweet Briar was beautiful, yes, but its rural setting wasn't for everyone. The president made the point Tuesday: "We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks." And there's no denying that fewer women are choosing to attend a single-sex institution today. It was an uphill battle to increase applications, but Sweet Briar managed to do it during the past few years. However, fewer admitted students chose to enroll, and it took greater tuition discounts to lure them. Ultimately, a losing proposition, leaders said.
Still, the decision to close seems hasty -- four months ago, the college dedicated a renovated and expanded library. It was hiring staff up until three weeks ago, according to its Twitter feed. What's up with that?
Alumnae are begging to do something to save the college -- a valiant offer, but probably too late.
This scenario is likely to play out across the land, as some small liberal arts colleges collide with the reality of unsustainable tuition policies, lagging enrollment and weak endowments. More students want education in urban areas, where they are likely to find job opportunities and a hip social life. There are more students over 25 who want online options and flexibility. And liberal arts is taking a back seat to business and health care majors.
That's the way of the world.
Today, though, I'm sad.
This summer, I will attend my 30th reunion at U.Va. My Sweet Briar friends will attend theirs, too. But this will likely be their last.
Rosam quae meruit ferat -- she who has earned the rose may bear it. (Sweet Briar's motto.)
Jane Stancill writes about higher education for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.
The viability of women’s colleges is one of those evergreen topics in higher education that has again come to the forefront with the announcement that Sweet Briar College will be closing at the end of this academic year. I am saddened to learn of this decision. But I am convinced, after 15 years of experience leading women’s colleges, that the closing of one college does not portend the fall of others. Hollins University and Sweet Briar have historically been very different colleges, each with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. The real question is: Do women’s colleges still play an important role in higher education?
Informed by scientific research and our own experiences, we know that each person learns differently; the learning environment and how one “fits” are keys to individual success. For many students today, a women’s college provides distinctive opportunities and is the right fit.
What do women’s colleges offer that is different than coeducational institutions? Women’s colleges help young women find their voices, learn how to “lean in,” and develop the confidence to push back against the challenges so many women face in the workplace and in life. They are places where women find the support and encouragement they need to take risks, push boundaries and succeed personally and professionally.
There are more obvious considerations as well. The tensions and expectations, biases and pressures found in the mix of male and female students on coeducational campuses are much less in evidence at women’s colleges. Research suggests, for example, that students at women’s colleges feel less pressure to engage in binge drinking and other negative behaviors associated with campus life. They often feel more empowered to set high expectations and work to achieve them in the absence of negative judgments by male peers. They also have higher participation rates in leadership positions and extracurricular activities and are less likely to make career decisions that steer them to female-dominated jobs.
This research is reinforced by the many accounts of both students and alumnae of women’s colleges about enhancing learning skills, building confidence and keeping the friendships made on campus well into their adult lives.
Further, many women’s colleges claim some of the most loyal, engaged and dedicated alumnae in the nation. At Hollins, we emphasize alumnae engagement in internship placement and career mentoring for students as we counter the old boys' network with our new women’s connections. Further, 11 percent of our entering students last year were referred by alumnae, and we are well on our way to reaching our goal of 300 alumnae-referred students in this academic year. Women’s college alumnae are incredible resources and many of them are ready, willing and able to help today’s students succeed in a world where women’s parity has not yet been achieved.
From large research institutions to small liberal arts colleges, private universities to state university systems, and community colleges to vocational schools, choice is the hallmark of our system of higher education. Each provides a meaningful opportunity for finding that crucial fit.
At Hollins and other women’s colleges across the country, we are providing an important option for young women at a time when more and more of them are looking for the best educational environment in which to prepare for a workplace where women are still not paid as well as men, where they are not represented as equally and where, still too often, they are treated as sexual objects. Thus, I am certain women’s colleges still have a vital role to play in educating and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders. And Hollins, with a strong endowment, no debt, a growing applicant pool, a highly credentialed faculty and an incredibly loyal alumnae body, is well positioned to provide such an education for many more years to come.
Nancy Gray is the president of Hollins University in Virginia.
Siena College has announced that it will drop its SAT/ACT requirement for undergraduate admissions. “This progressive stance will better align the college with its commitment to a student-centered education,” said a statement from Brother F. Edward Coughlin, president of the college.
Kean University sent acceptance notices to 3,000 people this week whom the New Jersey institution did not intend to admit, at least at this time, NorthJersey.com reported. A few colleges or universities a year seem to make such mistakes, and Kean has apologized for the error. One unusual feature of this mistake was that the 3,000 included some people who should have received a notice that their applications were incomplete. Since some of them had decided not to apply to Kean at all and the others hadn't finished the process, some of those "accepted," had never actually applied.
The law schools of the State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Iowa have announced that they will start accepting applications from some students without scores on the Law School Admission Test, Bloomberg reported. The American Bar Association recently loosened its LSAT requirement for law school accreditation and Buffalo and Iowa are using these new standards. The two law schools will consider applicants from their own undergraduate colleges based on their grades and other standardized tests, such as the GRE.
Despite projected large shortages of nurses, colleges are rejecting many qualified applicants to nursing programs, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. According to the report, colleges are rejecting one out of three qualified applicants for bachelor's of nursing programs and more than half of qualified applicants for associate programs in nursing. Many colleges with nursing programs have reported in recent years that they could admit many more students if they had funds to hire more faculty, build more laboratories and set up more training programs with hospitals.