After its president unexpectedly announced that Sweet Briar College would close forever in the summer, many alumnae and others challenged that decision. 

Here, two members of the board of directors respond with the reasons why they concluded the private women’s college could not remain open.

Elizabeth H.S. Wyatt is the vice chair of the board. She received a bachelor’s degree in government from Sweet Briar, a master’s in education from Boston University and an MBA from Harvard. Nancy H. Keuffel, a member of the board, received her bachelor’s degree in American studies from Sweet Briar. They write that this is not a new problem, but an issue that had been growing for many years. 

Sweet Briar’s difficult, daunting dilemma

By Nancy H. Keuffel and Elizabeth H.S. Wyatt

The Sweet Briar College Board of Directors devoted the last several years to exploring ways to achieve fiscal sustainability in light of the College’s challenges and those facing liberal arts and women’s colleges nationally.

The College’s financial problems have been building for decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Sweet Briar drew from its relatively small endowment at two to three times the national average to close an annual operating revenue shortfall, and we continue to make necessary draws far above the recommended 5 percent.

We have nearly $25 million in bond debt, close to $29 million in maintenance needs and many other financial obligations.

Most concerning, Sweet Briar’s enrollment has declined, even as we increased our tuition discount to attract students. Simply put, too few students want to attend Sweet Briar. Those who do are not paying anything close to the actual cost of their education.

In response, the board authorized sophisticated market research to identify new options to increase enrollment. We explored becoming coeducational, focusing on STEM programs, adding pre-professional programs, emphasizing sustainability, embracing global education, highlighting our equestrian and/or arts programs, and embedding both customized and experiential learning in all we did.

We studied whether we could raise the funds to support promising options that might emerge. We sought partnerships and mergers with other institutions. We enhanced our marketing and admissions efforts, increasing applications by 67 percent in five years.

Yet, none of these efforts ultimately offered the solution we needed.

With great reluctance and deep sorrow, the board—comprised of 20 alumnae, the spouse of an alumna, the parent of an alumna and a distinguished higher education scholar—acknowledged the College that it and so many others love could not persist. We had neither time nor resources to design and implement options to increase enrollment. The fundraising study indicated there would not be the necessary resources to support the development of new programs while sustaining the College. There was no reasonable guarantee these options would result in a sustainable future.
We also faced new, daunting realities:

  • The 2014 first-year class numbered only 154 students, compared to the more than 250 needed annually to achieve a balanced budget.
  • In January 2015, our total degree-seeking, undergraduate enrollment was at an unsustainable 532 students. This year’s on-campus faculty-to-student ratio was only 7-1, compared to the national average of 11.6-1 at the nation’s top 223 liberal arts colleges in fall 2012.
  • In May 2014, we graduated only 54 percent of our students in four years, compared to 70 percent in 1995-96.
  • Meeting the needs of enrolling students required discounting tuition by 63 percent in 2013 and 62 percent in 2014, compared to the national average in 2013 of 46 percent.
  • Even as applications rose, the percentage of admitted students who enrolled declined from 38 percent in 2008 to last fall’s 21 percent.
  • Although we have more than $60 million in restricted endowment, we did not (and still don’t) have access to that money.

As it became very clear we lacked the resources to operate for another academic year, we faced a difficult dilemma. Was it fair to admit a new class of first-year students? Should we seek to close in a way that would enable us to provide support for our current students and give us the best chance to have sufficient funds for severance for our employees?

 The Board was faced with two options: continue to operate the College until we had no money left and walk away perhaps in mid-year; or help our students find new academic homes, seek to fulfill our obligations to creditors, and strive to provide severance to faculty and staff.

Even as most of our students have found new academic homes, sadly the ensuing litigation has limited the College’s ability for the foreseeable future to provide severance and to explore options to repurpose and protect our physical assets in the ways we had hoped.

Throughout this difficult time, we have sought, based on our informed and experienced judgment, the best path out of a tragic situation. As much as others, we mourn the loss of the Sweet Briar we all love.