The Forum | Costs

The Sad Fate of Sweet Briar College

March 6, 2015 by Michael B. Poliakoff

A storied women’s liberal arts college founded in 1901 will close its doors this year. How could this happen, and what does this very sad story mean for American higher education?

In October 2009, Goldie Blumenstyck observed in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “as the country passes the first year of a supposed New Normal, few signs of revolutionary change are apparent.” The title of her article was deeply revealing, “In a Time of Uncertainty Colleges Hold Fast to the Status Quo.” Two years ago, business visionary Clayton Christensen predicted that ten to fifteen years hence, half of the colleges and universities in this nation, public and private, might well be in bankruptcy. Jeffrey Selingo, Editor-At-Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education used the ominous sub-chapter heading in his book College (Un)Bound: “The Well of Full-Paying Students is Running Dry.” Selingo cited Donald Lundquist’s study that shows how very few full-paying eighteen-year-olds there are that selective liberal arts colleges can reasonably expect to apply for admission.

Not everyone was listening, and fewer were acting. To survive in these circumstances a college needs to be agile and innovative. As the twenty-two distinguished leaders in education and government who were signatories to the Governance for a New Era Project, led by CUNY Board Chair and former Yale president Benno Schmidt observed, new realities require new strategies. The old practices of passive governing boards are a recipe for failure. 

These are difficult times. Elsewhere, small schools are forming consortia, so that they can reduce personnel costs while still offering a robust range of courses and programs. They define their mission rigorously and proactively eliminate programs that do not contribute to it. They are moving to all-year-round scheduling of classes and accelerated time-to-degree. And for all of this, they need fully empowered, engaged boards that will challenge the status quo, create and monitor metrics and benchmarks, and keep their institutions closely connected to and respected by the employers and industries for which their students prepare.    


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