Sweet Briar College Closing: Is It Taking Liberal Arts With It?

Girls at Virginia’s small all-female Sweet Briar College will spend the next two months waking up to the sickening realization that they haven’t been dreaming.

On Tuesday, March 3, SBC’s president announced that the century-old liberal arts institution will be closing up shop, effective immediately. The school, which is located in a rural area near Lynchburg, is citing “insurmountable financial challenges” as the reason for the closure.

Sweet Briar will close officially at the end of this coming summer, and the class of 2015 will be the final graduating class. Students were notified in person on Tuesday, while emails and social media posts were sent out to parents. To say the least, the community was stunned.

“I knew that something was going to happen, but I didn’t think they would give us such short notice,” said Kelley* a sophomore at SBC. “I thought they would at least let the freshmen through junior classes graduate.”

Despite recent projects, such as a privately funded library renovation, the school has been in a steady decline for awhile.

“I thought Sweet Briar was financially stable until I asked my coach why the school couldn’t help pay for [an athletic] training trip, and she replied with, ‘The school has absolutely no money,'” Kelley said.

Since the economic downturn in 2008, more and more colleges have been closing up shop. With the cost of higher education steadily rising, it has never been clearer that education is simply a business transaction. And just like a business, some fail.

Earlier this year, Corinthian Colleges—an education enterprise with more than 100 campuses—declared bankruptcy and began liquidating assets. The downfall was the result of multiple inquests into the standards and accreditation requirements. Some sources said students at their multiple campuses were almost better off for the closure, as the academic standards were so low.

However, this is not the case for Sweet Briar. The school maintains a full accreditation, enjoys spots on several “best-of” lists, and boasts a variety of programs and a nationally ranked equestrian team. In addition, they also currently have a $94 million endowment.

So why are they closing?

Putting aside the $250 million debt that the school finds itself in, the fact of the matter is that Virginia is swimming in small liberal arts colleges. The demand for all-female schools is shrinking, and, as Bloomberg Businessweek put it, small private schools are in a “death spiral.”

In a call with SBC alumnae, Pres. James F. Jones once again cited the difficulty of being a rural liberal arts college, and claimed that women’s colleges are a “failed business model.”

As a current student at a small (public) liberal arts institution in Virginia, I understand all too well the financial difficulties of keeping a school afloat. Like SBC, my school spent the majority of its existence as a women’s college, but unlike SBC, we don’t enjoy robust alumni donations. Honestly, when I found out that alumni funded a recent construction project, I was dumbfounded. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an alumni on my campus.

And that’s because my school has learned to follow the new higher-education business model. We went co-ed. We became a university. We broadcast our small liberal arts classes while throwing money into health, education, and science programs in an attempt to mimic larger, more profitable institutions. In effect, my school is slowly eating away at all the things that make it unique, in order to raise enrollment.

SBC chose to not follow that path. Instead of dragging on for three more years, the BOV decided that the best course of action was to “go out with our heads held high.” Instead of going co-ed or expanding their programs (options that are both timely and expensive), SBC chose to go out as herself, rather than attempting to conform.

“I spent a semester at [James Madison University] last fall and was able to experience the true public college scene, complete with sorority rushing and elaborate dining options. To go from Sweet Briar to JMU, from a small liberal arts, single-sexed institution to a large, public co-ed American campus, was shocking to say the least,” said senior Celia Lee. Lee will be among the 122 seniors graduating in the last ever SBC commencement ceremony this May.

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“After ‘clicking’ into my 100-person chemistry class to state my attendance, I realized I had left the best thing that had every happened to me: Sweet Briar,” Lee said. “I transferred back in order to graduate this May as a Sweet Briar Woman—and I am heartbroken to see this beautiful institution close its doors.”

So what happens when a college calls it quits?

Though I doubt many colleges have a back-up plan readily available, SBC has taken steps to aid the transition for the community, providing severance for professors and expedited application processes at several Virginia colleges, such as Randolph College, Lynchburg College, and the all-female Hollis University and Mary Baldwin College.

“It’s nice that these other colleges have opened their arms to us,” said Sarah, who was accepted to SBC for the 2019 school year. “But I don’t understand why they let in a freshman class. Frankly, it’s like a really horrible joke. You don’t just tell someone they got into their dream school, and then a month later go ‘lol, jk, nevermind. You could have SBC, but here’s Lynchburg College instead.’ No. It’s not the same. It’s not even remotely the same.”

SBC is the last remnant of the “glory days” for women’s institutions, still ripe with decades-old traditions that dominate life on campus. While many other schools have abandoned or adapted these traditions (or in my school’s case, attempted to preserve despite the disinterest of the student body), SBC is defined by them.

The college landscape is changing, and while part of this is extremely beneficial to incoming students, part of it is detrimental to the very nature of colleges.

There’s no doubt in my mind that SBC is only the latest in a long line of institutions that will buckle. For private schools especially, costs are too high. But the pain is being felt across the board, at state funded colleges as well. SBC may not be signaling the death of just the women’s college—it may be the start of the decline of the “small liberal arts” education as we know it.

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