This story has been updated.
For more than a century, Sweet Briar College has offered women a liberal arts education in a pastoral setting near Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Equestrian programs, a tight-knit residential community and, lately, an engineering science degree, have been its hallmarks.
On Tuesday, the college’s leadership abruptly announced its closure to stunned and tearful audiences of faculty and students. Officials cited “insurmountable financial challenges,” saying the 700-student college, founded in 1901, would shut down permanently in August. An $84 million endowment, officials said, was not enough to offset ebbing demand for their school in a tumultuous market.
“It’s so sad,” to think of a place that feels like a second home not existing any more, said Katie Craig, president of the student government. All around campus students were wandering, in shock, on the phone with their parents and friends, she said, wondering if all the things they worked so hard to achieve were for nothing.
Emotions were very high for alumnae who joined in on a conference call about the closure Tuesday evening, said Julia Patt, a 2009 graduate who lives in Chestertown, Md. She said people were shocked and kept asking if there wasn’t something they could do other than shut down.
Patt said students and graduates have a powerful bond to Sweet Briar. “To have it taken away, there really are not words for it,” she said. “I hope other institutions that come to a similar place might see some options. It doesn’t have to be like this for everyone.”
The closure of the college in Amherst County, north of Lynchburg, continues a painful era of retrenchment for single-sex higher education and is a sign of the perils facing small liberal arts schools of all types.
Fifty years ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States, according to the Women’s College Coalition. Now, after decades of shutdowns, mergers and coed conversions, there are little more than 40. Some women’s colleges remain among the most durable brands in higher education, including Smith, Wellesley, Barnard, Bryn Mawr and historically black Spelman. But others, like Sweet Briar, have faced an increasing financial squeeze and have scrambled to attract new students.
In late 2013, Jo Ellen Parker, then-president of Sweet Briar, said the college was seeking to cut costs and sharpen its focus. The school had excised its volleyball team and classes in Italian and German. Parker said the school planned to highlight what makes it distinctive, including programs that aimed to help women move into careers in science, technology and engineering.
But enrollment continued to slide. In 2010, the college had 760 students. Last fall, it reported 700. It charges about $47,000 a year in tuition, fees, room and board. But to attract students, the college had been forced to discount tuition by an average of about 60 percent, officials said, leaving it in precarious financial shape.
The college’s board of directors, in a meeting in Washington, voted unanimously Saturday to close as of Aug. 25, said college President James F. Jones Jr.
“This is a sad day for the entire Sweet Briar College community,” Paul G. Rice, the board chairman, said in a statement. “The board closely examined the college’s financial situation and weighed it against our obligations to current and prospective students, parents, faculty and staff, alumnae, donors and friends. We voted to act now to cease academic operations responsibly, allowing us to place students at other academic institutions, to assist faculty and staff with the transition and to conduct a more orderly winding down of academic operations.”
Jones was blunt about the challenges the school faced: “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.”
Variations on this view, sometimes in cities and suburbs, have aired over the years as many women’s colleges have transitioned to admitting men, including Goucher in Baltimore County and Hood in Frederick. Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg went coed in 2007, under the name Randolph College.
Coed schools have not been immune from pressure. Virginia Intermont College in Bristol announced its closure last year, and other institutions around the country in recent years have closed or merged. Demand for higher education in some regions has slackened as the economy has improved and as the number of graduates from high schools has dropped or leveled off.
Some women’s colleges, however, are thriving. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, said key to the success of her Catholic women’s college in Northeast has been the expansion of coeducational graduate programs and an intensive recruiting drive in urban neighborhoods.
That has netted many young women from low-income backgrounds, she said, especially from black and Hispanic families. “This idea that young women don’t want to go to women’s colleges,” McGuire said, is “an artifact” of an era when those colleges were perceived to be mainly targeting upper-class white women.
“There are a lot of women’s colleges that are doing fine,” said Marilyn Hammond, interim president of the Women’s College Coalition. “To say it’s a sector issue would not be correct.”
At Sweet Briar, the news roiled campus at midday Tuesday. Jones and Rice said faculty were told first, then students.
“That was, as one would expect, very emotional,” Jones said. He said his wife is a Sweet Briar alumna. Many of the students were in tears, he said. “They love this place as much as she did. It’s very much understandable — grief about losing something that you hold incredibly important down to the core of your being.”
Phyllis Jordan, a communications consultant who lives in the District and graduated from Sweet Briar in 1980, said the news stunned her Tuesday.
“I knew that Sweet Briar was in trouble and having tough times. But I had no idea this was the solution they were going to come up with,” said Jordan, a former Washington Post editor who is active on the school’s alumnae board.
There was an immediate outpouring on social media, of shock and dismay and love for the school. “First thought: I’m going to reunion this year if I have to pitch a tent on the Quad,” one alumna wrote.
“There are few things in my life that have caught me more off-guard or been more devastating,” one alumna, Angelica Shea, tweeted. “I can’t stop crying.”
Some current students sounded lost — worried about transferring credits, where they would be next year, what to do. Sweet Briar officials said they would help students transfer, possibly to Hollins University or Mary Baldwin College — two women’s schools in Virginia — or elsewhere.
Throughout Virginia, people were talking about the loss of part of the state’s history, a school known for its southern charm, its gentility, its early adoption of an engineering degree, its equestrian program. Students and alumnae of other women’s colleges reacted with sympathy, as well.
But Sweet Briar’s Web site crashed mid-afternoon, leaving error codes and blank spaces where there had been happy images of busy campus life.