Friday, March 6, 2015

Sweet Briar’s Demise Is a Cautionary Tale for Other Colleges

Among the striking statements that came with the announcement this week of the planned closure of Sweet Briar College were those by the college’s president and its Board of Trustees, which painted the decision as inevitable. The college faced "insurmountable" financial challenges, they said, amid a "declining number of students choosing to attend small, rural, private liberal-arts colleges and even fewer young women willing to consider a single-sex education."

That scenario suggested that Sweet Briar, with an $84-million endowment, was an early victim of a wave of closures about to sweep through higher education, claiming other colleges like it.

Is that actually the case? Running a small college is not an easy job these days, but there are many that have managed to survive, even grow, with smaller endowments and less-recognizable names than that of Sweet Briar College. And yet Sweet Briar’s high-profile closure will probably be of concern to those colleges that share some of the characteristics that marked it as vulnerable: a tiny student population, a rural location, a questionable niche, and programs that may have been expensive to maintain, such as the college’s well-known equestrian program.

With the closure just announced and scant details on the college’s finances available, it’s difficult to say for sure what factors made leaders at Sweet Briar throw in the towel­, and what other colleges should see as warning signs to avoid a similar fate.

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