Sweet Briar's last class? Why some all-women colleges are disappearing

Sweet Briar, a century-old women’s college in Virginia, could be holding its final graduation ceremony Saturday before it closes. But the school's decision to close is being contested in court.

Steve Helber/AP Photo/File
Graduating seniors at Sweet Briar college participate oi the tradition senior ride on the quad at the school in Sweet Briar, Va., Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The senior ride is a tradition where seniors are allowed to ride horses on school grounds. The school is scheduled to close in August with the final commencement ceremonies Saturday May 16.

For Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Saturday’s commencement may be the beginning of the end.

This weekend’s graduation ceremony could be the last for the 114-year old, all-women’s institution, which announced in March that it will close its doors for good at the end of summer.

The school's decision is currently being contested in court by a cavalcade of alumni, students, and professors. But the challenges this college faces are similar to a trend among small, private colleges – including all-women and co-ed – which in the last few decades have seen dwindling enrollment, rising tuition fees, and what some experts see as growing irrelevance in the arena of higher education. 

Some see it as progress. “These institutions can no longer serve their original purpose: providing opportunities for those shut out from the male-dominated world of higher education,” Brian Burton wrote for the Harvard Political Review in 2010. “As women continue to advance in society and as the detrimental effects of gender discrimination continue to fade, women’s colleges will continue to decline in number and in purpose.”

Between 2001 and 2011, female enrollment in all degree-granting institutions rose by more than a third, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2012, more than 70 percent of US women were enrolled in college right out of high school compared to about 60 percent of men, the Pew Research Center found.

Conversely, the number of all-women’s colleges across the country dropped from 230 to less than 50 over the past half-century, according to a report by the Women’s College Coalition. Financial instability has led them to merge with other schools, open their doors to men, or close down entirely.

In the case of Sweet Briar, its administrators cited the added burdens of a largely restricted endowment and nearly $30 million in debt as part of the reason for their decision, the Associated Press reported.

“The 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, and the increase in the tuition discount rate that we have to extend to enroll each new class is financially unsustainable,” James Jones, Jr., Sweet Briar’s president, said in March.

Women's colleges are not alone in their financial woes; the struggle appears to be just as real for small, coeducational, private institutions across the country. In 2013, Inside Higher Ed listed a number of schools – such as Midway College in Kentucky, Anderson University in Indiana, and Goddard College in Vermont – that have turned to layoffs, program cuts, and mergers to survive.

“The small, private, tuition-dependent nonprofit institutions face an uphill battle in many places,” Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, told the AP.

“The ones that can adapt and focus on their comparative advantage will be successful and those that can’t will have a really hard time continuing to attract enough students to pay the bills,” Mr. Kelly said.

At Sweet Briar, however, the fight is far from over. Saving Sweet Briar, a nonprofit that came together in early March to keep the college open, has rallied students, professors, and alumni over the last nine weeks. The group has since raised more than $13 million in pledges to the school through 2020 – a feat that supporters have said speaks to Sweet Briar's ability to stay afloat, and even thrive.

"This is a problem of marketing," says Teresa Tomlinson, the mayor of Columbus, Ga. and a 1987 Sweet Briar graduate who delivered the commencement speech at Saturday's ceremony. "There's no doubt that this is niche education. You have to appreciate that you're not MIT, you're not the University of Georgia. And all the better for it."

Many would agree that women's colleges provide unique, valuable experiences that translate into post-collegiate life. More than 80 percent of women's college graduates say their college was "extremely or very effective" in preparing them for their first job, versus only 65 percent of public university graduates, according to data from the Women's College Coalition. More than half of those who attended women's colleges went on to get graduate degrees, against less than 30 percent of those who attended public university.

Institutions that remain testaments to the enduring quality of women's colleges, "such as Smith College, Wellesley College, Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, and historically black Spelman College, have continued to flourish as hallmarks of women’s higher education,” Cristina Maza wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in March.

And for some, the benefits of attending a small, liberal arts college – benefits that include close-knit communities, personalized attention, and professors who are focused on teaching instead of research, according to USA Today – make such institutions valuable.

"I believe women's colleges have the potential to create a community of empowered women that can take on larger responsibilities and leadership roles post graduation," Elizabeth Pfeiffer, at the time a student at Scripps College, wrote for The Huffington Post in 2012. "I didn't feel like the defining character of my school should be the lack of men, but rather the richness of the community we do have and the possibilities this kind of environment offers."

On March 30, Amherst County attorney Ellen Bowyer filed a complaint against Sweet Briar administrators, disputing the board's assessment of the school's finances and arguing that the board did not do enough to ensure the school's continued operation. Ms. Tomlinson calls it a "failure of faith" on the part of the administrators: "They became too insular, overcome by doubt and defeat," she says.

The complaint also asserts that the decision to close the school would violate Virginia's trust laws. Sweet Briar was established as a gift via founder Indiana Fletcher Williams' will, which held that the college should remain a "perpetual memorial" to her daughter. 

On June 4, the Virginia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether or not the school should remain open. 

For her part, Tomlinson is optimistic – both about the future of Sweet Briar and that of small, liberal colleges across the nation. "This can be turned around in short order," she says of her alma mater's situation.

She adds: "There's a great lesson afoot here. We're going to have to evolve to survive."

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