Sweet Briar’s Closure Raises Fears for Other Small Colleges

The news that Sweet Briar College, a small women's school in rural Virginia, will close its doors when the spring semester ends has many worried about the fate of other small colleges, The Atlantic reports.

Enrollment at Sweet Briar has declined steadily over the last decade or so, and with few students able to afford the college's annual full-ticket price of $47,095, three-quarters of its 532 students had been receiving financial aid. According to college officials, revenue from the increasingly discounted tuition and an $84.4 million endowment that is severely restricted were no longer enough to cover the school's operating costs, which were considerable owing in part to the school’s small class sizes, hundred-plus-member faculty, and 3,250-acre campus.

Indeed, several faculty members told The Atlantic they had seen cuts in their compensation in recent years, including a freeze on salary and adjustments to their retirement benefits. It was not enough. Last fall, administrators asked faculty members to form a committee to explore various proposals aimed at keeping the school afloat, one of which was to turn it into a co-educational institution. The bequest made in 1900 to create the college, however, stipulates that the college serve women only, and given that it took years of legal work to integrate the school in the late 1960s, an additional change to the original bequest to allow men would have been a legal nightmare. Now that it plans to close, the college will have to settle any legal and financial entanglements and then liquidate its assets, including its extensive art collection — that is, if it's legally allowed to divest itself of the works. It may even be impossible to sell the land on which the school sits, The Atlantic reports, due to the wording of the original bequest.

Meanwhile, students are scrambling to transfer their credits to other schools and determine whether they will be able to graduate on time, while faculty, administrators, and staff face the prospect of finding new jobs in a tough academic job market. Indeed, with most of the school's endowment tied up by legal restrictions or designated to pay off creditors, there is little hope that many of them will receive a decent severance package.

An alumni-led effort to save the college has given hope to some, but many in the higher education community fear the school's fate is a harbinger of things to come for other small schools. "It is impossible to say that any of us lacked information to understand how dire the situation was," said John Casteen, an associate professor of poetry. "At the same time, not a single person thought there was any possibility that the college was going to close at the end of this year. It was very abrupt, a huge surprise."