Why Sweet Briar Is Closing

The woes felt by Virginia's all-female school are shared nationally.

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Sweet Briar College, the all-female college sprawling on more than 3,000 acres of former plantation land north of Lynchburg, will be shutting its doors after 114 years.

Sweet Briar has offered strong academics, including engineering for its students, many of whom went on to top global jobs.

It also had a reputation, admittedly dated, of being an Old South finishing school for affluent young women who enjoyed riding horses and the social whirl. Among its students was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline, wife of John F. Kennedy and the nation’s first lady.

What brought Sweet Briar down is a combination of declining enrollment and being too specialized and stuck to old traditions when higher education is going through turmoil.

In this state, St. Paul’s College, a historically black college in Lawrenceville, and Virginia Intermont College in Bristol have closed their doors. Virginia State University in Petersburg faced a shakeup and the resignation of its president last fall after declining enrollment created an unexpected budget shortfall of $19 million.

At Sweet Briar, enrollment dropped from 760 to 700 for this academic year. Tuition and room and board is a hefty $47,000, but the school had been forced to discount that by 60 percent because it was drawing fewer students. On Tuesday, administrators announced the financial situation was unsustainable, despite an $84 million endowment.

The trend toward smaller enrollments is a national phenomenon. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that from 2012 to 2013, college enrollment dropped by 463,000. The two-year decline was 930,000, the largest since the recession of 2007-2008.

Demographics may be one reason -- that is, fewer people are passing through their college-age years. Other problems are that student lending has gotten out of control and students balk at taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt just to get a bachelor’s degree. At less affluent schools, such as Virginia State, cutbacks in Pell Grants that help poor students go to school have been chopped back, although VSU seems to be on the mend.

Critics charge that colleges have become top heavy with administrators who get oversized salaries for jobs that are difficult to define. As this happens, some universities rely on underpaid adjunct professors for more of the teaching load.

There’s also a trend that four-year college may not be as essential as it used to be. High-skill, blue-collar jobs may pay much better than ones available to college grads.

Some all-female colleges appear to be doing just fine, such as Barnard, but others found they could survive only by becoming co-ed. Sweet Briar administrators considered going co-ed but decided it wasn't feasible.

For now it looks like students will get help transferring to other schools and the lush grounds will be sold.

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