When Brittany Agee moved back to Sweet Briar College this month, she joked that she could not stop running her hands along the red brick walls of the buildings on the idyllic campus.
“I keep touching the brick like ‘it’s real!'” said Agee, a 21-year-old senior who studies music at the school.
Agee and about 250 other students started classes at Sweet Briar on Thursday, realizing the long-shot dream of alumnae and students who fought hard to bring the school back from the brink of closure in the spring.
It is a changed Sweet Briar, however. The sprawling campus has less than half the number of students it had last year, and at times, it seemed sleepy. But students say they are electrified by the fight to keep the college open and have grown closer to one another after experiencing the anguish of saying goodbye. And there was an ebullience that pervaded the campus, where a sign in front of the admissions office reads “At Sweet Briar, the impossible is just another problem to solve.”
“It was turning one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced into the biggest triumph,” said Cassie Fenton, a 19-year-old music and history major from Peachtree City, Ga.
In March, then-president James F. Jones Jr. stunned students, faculty and alumnae by announcing that what he called insurmountable financial pressures necessitated the closure of the 114-year-old private women’s college. He pointed to dropping enrollment and increasing discounts on tuition designed to lure students as particular problems, leaving revenue unsustainably low and overly reliant on the endowment.
Alumnae rallied fiercely against the closure, filing legal challenges and raising more than $12 million. And, in a turn of events nearly as shocking, they succeeded in late June with a court settlement that would compel the replacement of the board and the appointment of a new president.
Then they got to work: It was already long after most students had committed to go to other colleges. The new president, Phillip Stone, agreed to maintain the tuition level from 2014-15 and assured students they would keep the same level of aid.
As classes got underway on the rural campus on Thursday, students said the turn of events in the spring only drew them closer together. That — and being forced to consider transferring to other colleges — made them appreciate the unusual intimacy of the school, where young women are bonded by an array of century-old traditions, like a program that pairs upperclassmen with “little sisters” in lower grades.
Katherine Leaver, a 19-year-old sophomore, said she was touring campus apartments at University of Mary Washington where she had planned to transfer. She was shown a safe where she could keep her valuables in. At Sweet Briar, she said she never worried about her stuff getting stolen: she comfortably left her laptop in the library for days at a time and never locks her bike.
“I didn’t really appreciate that until I lost it,” Leaver said.
Thursday morning, about a dozen students gathered around a broad wooden table in the bottom floor of the Sweet Briar library, where associate professor of history Kate A. Chavigny opened the first class of “Doing Sweet Briar History” not with the early days of the school, but its most recent past. When she taught the class during the spring semester, about half the class dropped out.
“It was a bittersweet experience because of the titanic battle to reverse the closure,” Chavigny said. “We are so happy you returned. We know you are taking somewhat of a risk.”
Only 248 students returned to campus and about 30 freshman enrolled. Another 80 Sweet Briar students are studying abroad this term and do not contribute as much tuition as on-campus students. Tuition discounts, which some attributed to the school’s financial decline, remain in place.
Ken Redd is the director of research and policy analysis at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, which just completed a national survey of the widespread practice of ‘tuition discounting.’ At such schools, “missing an entering class [enrollment goal] by 50 or 100 students has huge, huge implications for revenue.”
“For private colleges, tuition and fee revenue is the largest revenue source,” Redd said.
Chavigny asked her students to share their own perspectives about returning to the college.
“We’re all looking forward. We’re not looking back,” said Fenton, who explained in an interview after class that she did not want to dwell on the anguish that roiled the campus last year.
And when they look forward, Fenton and other students said they are confident the school would remain open for them to finish their education.
Stone, the new president, has vowed to increase enrollment to capacity — 800 students — and then “wean” the school off its use of tuition discounts to attract students. But he said the school will have to lean heavily on donations from alumnae in the near future. He hopes they can raise $12 million this year, the same amount of money donors ponied up when the school was under threat of closure.
Students who returned to campus acknowledged they took a risk by returning to a school that is still at risk of shutting down. But watching the efforts of alumnae buttressed their faith that it would remain open.
“If alumnae can get us back from that point, I don’t think they’re going to let it close,” said Natalie Bosch, a 19-year-old sophomore studying biology. Her former roommate and her “big sister,” the upper class member who was paired with her as a mentor, did not return. “There’s just so many people who have faith in it staying open.”
This post has been updated.