When a court-approved deal to keep Sweet Briar College open was signed last month, many had just one question: Will students come back?
The private women’s college had been slated for a sudden, unexpected and final closure this summer, after its then-president told stunned faculty, students and alumnae that the school faced insurmountable financial challenges. One of those challenges was enrollment: Fewer students were coming, he said, and those who did had been lured by such heavily discounted tuition rates that the school was forced to draw down its endowment at an alarming rate just to keep operating.
Incoming freshmen were told to find new schools, and current students told to transfer.
A settlement brought an infusion of cash, new leadership and a fresh start. Critics wondered whether any fundamental problems had been solved, though.
But six days after the new board of directors and president took hold of the liberal arts college, they announced that nearly 300 students have committed to attend Sweet Briar this fall.
The new president, Phillip Stone, vowed to increase enrollment to its highest level ever.
That will take some work.
In 2008-2009, the school had 645 students living on campus. This past year, there were 561. And that dropped to 510 in the spring.
This spring, David Breneman, then-chair of the academic affairs committee of the Sweet Briar College board of directors, former president of Kalamazoo College and professor emeritus in economics of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, argued that the college fell apart because a key element went unmet — enrollment.
At 600 students, he wrote, they simply could not realize the economies of scale that a 1,200-student college would.
Sweet Briar’s leaders have promised students that the school will stand by its financial aid commitments to students, and will expedite requests by incoming freshmen.
Tuition and fees will remain the same as last year, $47,095.
Convocation will be Aug. 26, and classes will begin the following day.
They do have rising freshmen who have committed to return, and a dozen entirely new accepted applicants at this point, said Teresa Tomlinson, chair of the board.
“We were pleasantly surprised,” she said. “We didn’t think we’d get quite this response.”
Returning students include the student-body president, class leaders and top scholarship winners.
“Not surprisingly, we are getting our very best students back,” Stone said in a statement. “These are students that have many choices, and they are choosing to come back to Sweet Briar. The nearly 300 students that have indicated they will return is our new starting point. We intend to move up from there.” He repeated his intention to keep the college thriving well into the future: “The best is yet to come.”
Tomlinson said they are already looking, informally, at having 1,000 or 1,100 students several years from now. At the moment, she said 700 residential students is the absolute maximum they could handle.
And financial issues, she said, can be addressed this year by cutting spending. “That’s been pretty stunning to see,” she said, in the days since they took over this month. “Some efforts at cost control could easily save us millions of dollars a year.”