As the dust has settled on the 11th-hour deal that will hopefully keep Sweet Briar College alive for at least another year, it's become clear that the college's supporters are not out of the woods yet.
When Sweet Briar's leadership announced in March that the 114-year-old women's college would shut its doors for good this summer, a number of immediate problems plaguing the school came to the surface. Those problems included declining enrollment trends and a shrinking endowment that, while still sizable, seemed unable to sustain.
As part of the deal to save Sweet Briar, the school's old leaders will leave the college. But now their replacements are left with some tough choices.
In an essay at Inside Higher Ed, Alice Brown, president emerita of the Appalachian College Association, notes that some of the aspects that made Sweet Briar so attractive to potential students—and so meaningful to the alumnae who raised millions of dollars to save it are also a major financial burden on the college.
“Will the college keep its 54 horses, costing $27,000 a month in food and $36,500 a month for care? Will it find the $28 million needed for deferred maintenance on its once grand buildings? Will the student-faculty ratio become higher than eight to one?” Brown asks.
The college's small class sizes are a serious drain on its finances that might not be immediately evident to outside observers.
“Sweet Briar’s model of providing highly personalized education with small class sizes is expensive, as indicated by educational expenses per student of approximately $42,000,” according to a recent Moody's report on the college.
Sweet Briar could cut costs by offering online courses, a prospect that the college has rejected in the past. Brown, in her IHE essay, points out a 2011 article in a campus publication that asked the question, “Should Sweet Briar Offer Online Education?” The answer, from students and administrators, seemed to be a resounding “no.”
“Sweet Briar is a traditional residential liberal arts college. We don't have any need to do business with online classes. The education would not be the same, especially for foreign language students. The isolation that online classes create also collides with the teaching philosophy of Sweet Briar which is to provide education in small, discussion based classes in an intimate and strong community,” Sweet Briar's registrar, Deborah Powell, said, according to the campus publication.
This view may have been shortsighted. As Brown argues, “The reality is that education at Sweet Briar is not the same it once was, and it is likely to move even farther away from that utopian state.”
In a separate essay at IHE, Joshua Kim, the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, outlines the direct benefits of online education for the struggling liberal arts college.
“The reason to develop a blended / low-residency / online strategy is that such a strategy is the only way to ensure long-term economic sustainability,” Kim writes. “Providing other learning options beyond only face-to-face will both benefit existing students, make enrolling in Sweet Briar more attractive, and open the door to new programs and new students.”
Outside of the classroom experience, one of Sweet Briar's calling cards has been its undeniably stunning campus, which encompasses 3,250 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, incoming Sweet Briar President Phillip C. Stone cites the school's surroundings as one of the most “attractive features” for potential students.
“The beautiful, parklike grounds, the ability to study in such a serene, pastoral environment — we want to talk about these as positives,” Stone said.
The fate of this campus, though, will likely be decided in the upcoming months and years. While 27 acres of Sweet Briar's campus are a historic district—along with 21 of its buildings—the remaining thousands of acres could be part of the key to keeping the college open for the future.
“The possibility of creating a planned residential and/or commercial community on property owned by Sweet Briar College is significant and could result in substantial sums to the College,” according to John W. Gibb, the managing director of a higher education and real estate financial firm and former chairman of the Wilson College Board of Trustees. Gibbs shared this view in a statement supporting one of the lawsuits against the college.
The college's upcoming leadership will almost certainly consider developing Sweet Briar's campus. Gen. Charles C. Krulak, a former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and current president of Birmingham-Southern College, made a similar argument in a separate statement attached to the lawsuit. He's now tapped to be a new member of Sweet Briar's board.
While potential changes that could affect Sweet Briar's culture may be unpopular, they may also be necessary.
"Nostalgia is no substitute for a sound financial plan," a former board member of three private colleges told IHE.
Unfortunately for Stone and the new Sweet Briar board, the school needs continued alumnae support and donations to survive in the long run. Even if Sweet Briar maintains enough of the college's original allure to entice alumnae to give, there is a lingering concern that funds have been "tapped out" in the recent push that ended up raising millions of dollars in pledges.
“Once you say that out of passion you're going to make the most generous, sacrificial gift I can make, it's pretty hard to keep doing that year after year,” Stone told the Chronicle. “So we'll have to work at that, and it will be hard to sustain it.”
This could be even harder than Stone anticipates, as any shift that Sweet Briar makes may, paradoxically, end up isolating the very people who worked tirelessly the past few months to save the school.
"One issue that might present difficulties for any development office is that of gathering donations to make the college an institution of the 21st century when most of those being solicited graduated during the 20th century and want the college to preserve the culture it once enjoyed," Brown writes.
While Brown notes this is an issue affecting pretty much any college, the significant changes likely needed at Sweet Briar could seriously change the character of the school.