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A year after Sweet Briar was saved from closing, school leaders celebrate fundraising growth

Sweet Briar College (Steve Helber/AP)

In the year since alumnae were able to save cash-strapped Sweet Briar College from closing, the small private school has raised more than $10 million more in donations.

When the Virginia school’s then-president announced in March 2015 that Sweet Briar had “insurmountable” financial challenges and must shut down forever that summer, many saw it as a warning sign for women’s colleges and small liberal-arts institutions.

Sweet Briar College to close because of financial challenges

Alumnae saw it as a challenge. With help from students, faculty and others in the community, they raised $12 million in three months, forced a settlement, and reopened for classes in the fall.

Sweet Briar survives: Judge approves settlement deal to keep the college open

But the new board and new president, Phillip Stone, knew they had to recruit students. Declining enrollment, and the resulting drop in tuition revenue (exacerbated by financial aid packages designed to lure more students), was a major financial concern before the threatened closure. The college has capacity for 800 students, but only 240 enrolled on short notice that fall.

Alumnae vowed to save Sweet Briar from closing last year — and they did

This fall, 325 students are expected. College officials had hoped for 200 new students, and drew 175.

“2016 was a rebuilding year,” Stone said in a written statement. “We took over a mostly shuttered institution and could not start recruiting a new class until September of 2015, six months later than other institutions. The fact that we will have a student body of this size in such a short time is one more Sweet Briar miracle.”

“We are proud that the College spent less than it budgeted,” Stone said, $2 million under budget for this fiscal year. For the first time in the school’s long history, “The endowment was not touched. That is simply amazing when you consider we had a student body of only 40 percent of its previous size, were required by the settlement agreement to pay almost $5 million of severance to faculty and staff, and incurred more than $30 million of other costs due to the attempts to close.”

The $10.25 million donated in 10 months — five times the unrestricted funds it had raised annually in the past — is badly needed  to help pay off those closing costs. So Sweet Briar leaders will keep asking for donations. And they’re busy recruiting students for fall 2017.