How Can a College Go Bankrupt? The Strange Case of Sweet Briar College

Earlier this year, Virginia’s Sweet Briar College announced that it would soon close its doors. The wealthy women’s-only school first opened more than a century ago, and since then, thousands of women have gained a solid liberal arts education there. What are the underlying reasons for Sweet Briar’s financial woes, is it really in its last days, and what can we learn from this strange case?

Landmarks in Sweet Briar’s History

Outcries over the school’s potential closing are understandable; Sweet Briar played a small but important role in Virginia’s history. It was founded in 1901 on the grounds of¬†Indiana Fletcher Williams’ estate. A landmark moment came in the 1930s when the school established a study-abroad program, making it a pioneer in international studies. In 1995, 21 of Sweet Briar’s buildings earned places on the Virginia Landmarks Register. The buildings are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic District. Of course, the school isn’t stuck in the past. In 2004, it established an engineering degree program, making it one of two women’s colleges in the nation to offer such.

Sweet Briar’s Dwindling Enrollment

As precious as history is, it cannot help Sweet Briar to adapt to changing times. Opinions abound about what contributed to the school’s financial woes, but at the root of the problem is insufficient enrollment numbers. The school is in a rural location, making it difficult for part-time students to attend. Furthermore, while some women’s colleges have chosen to welcome men as students, Sweet Briar remains a single-sex school. Some women view this as an old-fashioned arrangement and feel they would miss out on some social aspects of college life. Some students who enrolled for a year or two because of tuition discounts leave before they finish their degrees.

Sweet Briar’s Bankruptcy

In spring of 2015, Sweet Briar declared that it would soon close its doors. A court ruling managed to save the school for another academic year, but that doesn’t mean Sweet Briar has an extended future ahead of it. Despite the school’s $94 million endowment, it still faces problems of enrollment and student retention. In the past, it tried to partner with larger, stronger educational institutions but so far none have decided to get on board with Sweet Briar. Another issue is that, since the school announced it would close, many members of the faculty took jobs elsewhere, meaning that, at the very least, the face of the school is changing.

The Saving Sweet Briar Campaign

A non-profit organization Saving Sweet Briar makes continuing efforts to keep the school afloat. Saving Sweet Briar has already raised millions of dollars for the school. The organization also seeks to educate the public about the college’s financial state and to find people who can join the school’s board of directors and lead it to a brighter future.

What do coming years hold for Sweet Briar College? Will the school be able to adapt to changing times? It is impossible to say. However, for now, the historic institution remains active and hopeful that it will serve future generations of students. For now, we congratulate Sweet Briar and we wish all associated with the college the best as they begin a new school year.

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