Essay reflects on why she enrolled in and left Sweet Briar College

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.

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Sweet Briar College

Essay on the continued role of women's colleges

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.

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Hollins University

Siena Goes Test Optional on Admissions

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.


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In Error, Kean U. Sends Acceptances to 3,000

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, 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.


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2 Law Schools Start Some Admissions Without LSAT

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.

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Report: Colleges Reject Qualified Nursing Applicants

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.


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Essay calls for a different approach to FAFSA reform

Seemingly from the day it was created in 1992, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has been a popular target for reform. The Obama administration shortened the time it takes to finish the form by two-thirds and created an automated tool so families can import their tax data. And now there’s a competition to see who can drop more of the FAFSA’s 105 questions. The president’s latest budget targets 30 questions for removal, while a bipartisan group of senators led by Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican now in charge of the committee that covers higher education, wants to go even farther -- shortening the FAFSA to just two questions that could fit on a postcard.

Making the FAFSA less of a burdensome impediment to financial aid receipt and reform is a laudable goal. But the obsessive “who can go lower” approach to simplifying the FAFSA is misdiagnosing the disease. FAFSA’s problem is not its length -- it’s the frequency that it’s required.

Reducing the number of FAFSA questions gets at a very specific problem -- the annual burden associated with completing the form. Doing so would free families from the yearly process of digging up complex tax, asset and other income data.

But as Michael Stratford discussed recently in Inside Higher Ed, removing FAFSA questions comes with its own set of concerns. In particular, colleges and most states do not have unlimited entitlement funds for financial aid, so they want as much data as possible, in order to vary the price charged to students to a degree that would make the airlines jealous. Take away that data by bringing the form down to two questions and you may just drive the creation of additional forms like the dreaded and expensive CSS Profile.

Fortunately, there’s a middle path that accomplishes the goal of reducing burden while still giving colleges and states the data they need to make nuanced decisions: a one-time FAFSA.

Since students would still fill out a detailed form, colleges would have the data they need to parcel out resources. They just would not have new information to do so year after year.

For students, the FAFSA would become more like any other part of the college application process, which is full of one-time submissions like essays and transcripts. This includes the Department of Education’s master promissory note, which only needs to be filled out once to receive federal student loans. And it would reduce the chances that students would lose financial aid solely because they failed to reapply the following year -- a problem that professors Sara Goldrick-Rab and Robert Kelchen identified in a post on a similar proposal in 2013.

What families and students would get in return for this one-time burden is something that could never be earned in any annual application process, regardless of length: predictability. Few students entering college have any idea what their financial aid might be beyond the first year. And they will not know for sure until they actually apply for aid again. A shorter form can help families more accurately predict what they might receive -- but it’s still an estimate, not a given.

A one-time FAFSA would make it possible to promise a student on day one what their aid package would look like for the rest of their undergraduate career. Families could use that information to budget and plan for costs in a way they cannot today. It could also be a huge help for low-income students considering different college options, since they would know exactly what support they could count on from the federal government at the same time they submit applications.

Only requiring the FAFSA a single time is a required step for many proposals for reforming federal student aid. For example, House Republicans proposed last year to create a flex account for Pell Grants. Students would be told upon entering college the total amount of Pell aid they are entitled to throughout their whole education and then would be allowed to spend it down as they took classes. It’s an intriguing idea that could send a strong message to students about just how much money they can get for college. But it’s also an empty promise for students under the current system, since the account balance would have to be recalculated each year.

Many of the most common objections to a one-time FAFSA could be addressed with simple tweaks. For example, it should pull in multiple years of older data so families cannot manipulate their income for a single year to appear poorer and get better aid. Students who see significant downward financial changes, such as a parent losing a job, could either follow the existing process of appealing to the financial aid office or refile for federal aid. And while it would be better to worry less about the unlikely cases that students see massive income increases, a threshold test could be added to only require new FAFSAs if income went up by very large dollar amounts, such as $20,000.

More broadly, moving to a one-time FAFSA system sends a message of simplicity and flexibility that extends far beyond paperwork. It makes the financial aid system less about obsessing over one's ability to pay in a single year to a longer-term assessment of financial circumstances that are probably not changing a great deal on an annual basis anyway. It builds in a tolerance for some income growth without making families go back through the hoop-jumping process. And in a world where tuition increases are an annual uncertainty, it could be a welcome source of predictability for students.

If the goal of financial aid simplification is really to make the process easier and more predictable for students and families, then the emphasis should be predictability, not a postcard.

Ben Miller is the higher education research director at New America.

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Second UMKC Professor Resigns in Ranking Scandal

The University of Missouri at Kansas City on Friday announced that John Norton has resigned as a faculty member of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management. He is the second faculty member to quit who was involved in efforts to provide false information to the Princeton Review for its ratings of business schools. In a statement released by the university, Norton said: “I am as passionate as ever about teaching entrepreneurship and innovation to our excellent Bloch School students, but I have reached the conclusion that my role in events of recent weeks may distract from that mission.”

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'This Week': Pressure on Admissions / Classifying Faculty

On the latest edition of "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free news podcast, David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and Todd Rinehart of the University of Denver discuss a recent controversy involving presidential influence in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. And in our other segment, the University of Denver's Arthur Jones and Henry Reichman of the American Association of University Professors explore Denver's new approach to employing non-tenure-track faculty -- a possible model for other institutions. Sign up here to be notified of new "This Week" podcasts.


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British universities are spending more on agents to recruit international students

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British universities are paying more in commissions to recruit international students.


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