Despite some closings, small colleges are not doomed yet

Higher Education
by Laura Edghill
Posted 3/10/15, 11:46 am

Supporters of a small liberal-arts college unexpectedly rallied on social media last week following the abrupt announcement of the upcoming closure of Sweet Briar College. The college’s trustees voted unanimously to shutter the Virginia institution’s doors at the end of this school year, citing insurmountable financial challenges and declining enrollment.

Students and alumnae of the women’s school took to social media, decrying both the unexpected nature and the finality of the decision. Hashtags #SaveSweetBriar and #vixens continue to trend as supporters work to raise $2 million dollars to influence the college’s leaders to reconsider.

“Pls retweet. Alumnae were nvr told of our dire financial situation; never given a chance to save her #SaveSweetBriar,” tweeted user @cjtoomey5. Numerous others posted and quickly launched a website dedicated to fundraising.

In response to repeated requests from alumnae and supporters about what it would take to keep the school open for its 561 students, Sweet Briar President James Jones threw out a figure of $250 million, despite the fact that Sweet Briar still sits on an endowment of $94 million.

Trustees for another small, Christian liberal-arts college, Tennessee Temple University (TTU), voted last week to merge with North Carolina’s Piedmont University at the end of this semester. TTU’s final decision was expected, though, and came after several years of declining enrollment, insufficient fundraising, and attempts to remain open.

For several years now, education watchers have opined that small colleges are relics and cannot withstand the increased pressure of competing alternatives such as enhanced community college programs with degree-granting articulation agreements, deep tuition discounts at many popular schools, increased availability of college credit programs at the high school level, innovative online degree programs, and more. In practice, spending four years away from home at a brick-and-mortar institution seems increasingly anachronistic to an emerging generation of pragmatic educational consumers.

But the data suggests no trend of small-college closings, yet. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an average of one college per month has closed its doors since 1969. Last week’s two announcements, on their own, are not sufficient to influence that statistic.

Many small liberal-arts colleges enjoy a steady stream of young students eager to experience the traditional on-campus environment. Allegheny College, a campus nestled in picturesque Meadville, Pa., will celebrate its 200th anniversary this year. Allegheny boasts an endowment of nearly $163 million for its 2,100 students, many of whom come from legacy families who have attended the school for generations. Its voraciously loyal alumni swept up nearly every single available on-campus bed within hours of reservations opening for its landmark reunion celebration this coming May.

For now, though, Sweet Briar students will grieve their loss and make plans to transfer to other universities.

“There is much grief, anger and bewilderment in our community. There is also such a feeling of betrayal as the decision to close Sweet Briar was made by board members who are graduates of the college,” alumni Kelly Gardner Headd told The Washington Post, “These are individuals one hoped would fight to the last breath to save our school.”

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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  • creekmama
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 05:19 pm

    Thank you so much for your coverage of higher ed.  I am the wife of a college professor, and I think your reporting on colleges and universities is excellent.  Please keep these articles coming!

  •  dcsfoyle's picture
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 05:19 pm

    Fighting to the last breath isn't usually the best use of funds. What happens when the #savesweetbriar money runs out? That $250 million figure is probably a very reasonable figure when you consider that the president isn't talking about a one-time fix, but rather, long-term viability.It is a harsh analogy, but sometimes it's best to put the dog down instead of spending hand over fist to delay the inevitable. These are economic decisions, not emotional betrayals.