A women's liberal arts college in Virginia announced Tuesday that the spring 2015 semester would be its last—even though the school still has a $94 million endowment.
Sweet Briar College, located near Lynchburg, Virginia, will close "as a result of insurmountable financial challenges," the school said in a press release.*
Sweet Briar administrators cited several trends that informed the decision to close, including the declining number of female students interested in women-only colleges and the dwindling number of students overall interested in small, rural liberal arts colleges.
Last year, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that small, private U.S. colleges were in a "death spiral" in light of dropping enrollment rates. This decline comes amid competition from cheaper online colleges and community colleges, which are enticing to students in a job market that's weaker than it once was.
Several colleges similar to Sweet Briar have recently made changes to survive financially, according to Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed. But each choice has come with its own trade-offs. Jaschik highlights two other women's colleges in Virginia:
Mary Baldwin College has embarked on a plan to preserve its identity as a residential undergraduate liberal arts college by creating new colleges of education and health professions. College leaders say this approach will make the women's residential college financially sustainable, but many professors fear that the institution's liberal arts ideals are being compromised.
Randolph-Macon Woman's College, meanwhile, renamed itself Randolph College and in 2007 started enrolling men. As has been the case at many women's colleges making that decision, some alumnae objected.
Randolph College's endowment is more than $125 million.
According to the Sweet Briar statement, "In March 2014, the College began a strategic planning initiative to examine opportunities for Sweet Briar to attract and retain a larger number of qualified students and determine if any fundraising possibilities might exist to support these opportunities. Unfortunately, the planning initiative did not yield any viable paths forward because of financial constraints."
Speaking with IHE, Sweet Briar College President James F. Jones Jr. lamented the closing of the college as a part of a broader change in "the diversity of American higher education."
"The landscape is changing and becoming more vanilla," Jones said.
As Jaschik notes, Sweet Briar's closing is not unique, especially given the financial burdens many schools have faced since 2008. But, Jaschik writes, "the move is unusual in that Sweet Briar still has a $94 million endowment, regional accreditation and some well-respected programs."
Shutting the school now—as opposed to when Sweet Briar runs out of funds—will allow the college to offer help to its students and faculty as they transition out after the semester.
"We have moral and legal obligations to our students and faculties and to our staff and to our alumnae. If you take up this decision too late, you won't be able to meet those obligations," Sweet Briar College board of directors chairman Paul G. Rice told IHE.
Here's how Sweet Briar plans to offer support, according to IHE:
While all employees will lose their jobs, the college hopes to offer severance and other support. Students (including those accepted for enrollment in the fall) will receive help transferring. This semester will be the last one at the college, but it will remain officially open through the summer so that students can earn credit elsewhere and transfer it back to Sweet Briar to leave either with degrees or more credit toward degrees.
Sweet Briar announced on its Facebook page that it has already expedited transfer arrangements with four local colleges.
*Correction, March 4, 2015: This article originally misspelled Lynchburg, Virginia.