Who's Next? Who Isn't?

Some fear Sweet Briar's decision to close will prompt other small private colleges to do the same, leading a number of presidents to outline how their colleges are not like Sweet Briar.

March 6, 2015

Sweet Briar College’s sudden decision to close may cause other struggling private colleges to do the same by creating a new paradigm for when a college should call it quits.

That’s the fear of Richard Ekman, the head of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents many small private colleges across the country. He worries Sweet Briar's decision will influence other trustees.

"My hope is that it will not,” Ekman said. “My hope is that trustees at most colleges will look at the possibility of trying other things. There are plenty of examples of colleges that have tried things and it's worked for them.”

Sweet Briar, a well-known 700-student women’s college in rural Virginia, announced this week it will close after the spring semester. The decision is designed to prevent a death spiral that some struggling colleges have fallen into, stranding students and waylaying faculty.

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Sweet Briar’s closure raises twin questions for the leaders of struggling private colleges: Should a college with some resources -- like Sweet Briar and its $85 million endowment -- fight to the bitter end? Or should some of the colleges exit gracefully before they are forced to close their doors by creditors and red ink-stained balance sheets?

Ekman cautioned colleges against using short-term results -- lower enrollment, for instance -- to decide they cannot last. “I don’t think the trends are destiny,” he said. “I think it’s too easy to extrapolate from the trend of a few years to say this is the way it’ll always be.”

He said challenged colleges are trying new programs -- some of these programs, he said, may not be so good, but there are a lot of options.

There does not yet seem to be a solid metric to tell college leaders -- not to mention the public, including the college’s students -- when a college should call it quits. Colleges that talk openly of closing could turn away students, destabilizing the very revenue source they would need to stay open. This may be why some college presidents facing uphill battles remain publicly optimistic. But because the conversations about the future are so often done in secret, a final decision can end up being a shock.

The Department of Education does actually have a metric designed to predict when a college might be in trouble. Yet the system failed to detect Sweet Briar’s troubles -- not the first time the department’s financial responsibility score has not seemed to jibe with reality.

The department had no outstanding issues, findings or concerns regarding Sweet Briar’s most recent audited financial statements, according to a department official who requested customary anonymity.

Small-college presidents across the country now seem to be facing existential questions caused by Sweet Briar’s end. They tend to be drawing attention to the ways that they are not like Sweet Briar and saying they have no intention to close.

The president of Hollins University, another women’s college in Virginia, tried to make the point this week that her college is “very different” from Sweet Briar -- that the closing of one college does not require the closing of others. Hollins, which has about 580 undergraduates, also launched an effort to enroll Sweet Briar’s students.

Lynn Pasquerella, the president of Mount Holyoke College, e-mailed her campus this week with a statement and a fact sheet comparing Mount Holyoke to Sweet Briar. Her point, she said, was that the two women’s colleges are “quite different.” Indeed, Mount Holyoke has about three times as many students, is more selective, does better in rankings, enrolls students with better academic credentials and has a $714 million endowment.

But the point may just as well be that she even had to make that point.

“The fact that the number of women's colleges has declined nationally is undeniable, and we must always be aware of such trends and our own status,” Pasquerella wrote.

By no means are such statements coming just from women's colleges.

Steven Bahls, the president of Augustana College in Illinois, sent his Board of Trustees a note comparing and contrasting their college with Sweet Briar: Augustana has a larger endowment, is not rural and admits both men and women, among other things. He said the e-mail was in response to questions from trustees.

Bahls said he did not want to second-guess Sweet Briar, but he would not want to preemptively call it a day and close Augustana until every resource was exhausted.

"I don’t think it’s irresponsible to say, ‘We’re going to spend the last dollar before we close,'" he said.

Even though Sweet Briar had an $85 million endowment, Bahls and others have noted that much of the money was restricted, meaning it could not be spent on general operating costs. Sweet Briar expected to run about a $2 million deficit this year, it told its credit rating agency, Standard and Poor’s.

The president of Northland College in Wisconsin riffed on Sweet Briar’s president, who lamented in an interview that Sweet Briar was “30 minutes from a Starbucks.”

Well, said Northland President Michael A. Miller, Northland is 90 minutes from a Starbucks. Instead, there are a half dozen other coffee shops and restaurants in Ashland, the 8,000-person town Northland occupies near Lake Superior.

“We can no longer sit idly, waiting for students to arrive,” Miller said in a letter sent to Inside Higher Ed. He said the college has to try new things, like an evolving curriculum and efforts to diversify its sources of money.

“I can’t lie,” he said, of his 550-student college. “I’d rather have 800 students -- the number we had in the heyday of the 1990s -- but we’re not there yet, and may never be. In the last five years, we’ve worked to evolve our curriculum, take inventory of our natural assets, build our pillars of strength and stay relevant.”


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