This week, institutions of higher education and prospective students across the nation were shocked by the announcement that Sweet Briar, a longstanding all-women’s liberal arts college in Virginia, would be closing its doors after this semester. Despite its $85 million dollar endowment, the institution’s president cited “insurmountable financial challenges” as the primary reason for the closure.
Although there are still significant barriers inhibiting the entry of women, particularly women of color, into higher education, female enrollment in coed colleges has still improved dramatically in recent years, while yield rates for women’s colleges have stagnated or declined. Many college women feel that coed institutions with large endowments and a variety of programs are better equipped to prepare them for careers in the public sphere. Although some same-gender liberal arts colleges are moving towards creating programs that women have been historically denied access to, many still do not have the facilities or the infrastructure to create entirely new departments in areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), economics, or even political science, all of which have been targeted by high schools and national campaigns as areas of much-needed improvement in terms of gender diversity. Additionally, national conversations surrounding the legality of denying certain populations access to semi-publically funded institutions, even those created in response to historical marginalization, have contributed to the politicization and complexity of fundraising for, operating, and hiring at women’s colleges. When all these motivations and factors are taken into account, it becomes unsurprising that same-gender institutions are facing closure more than ever.
On a broader level, analysts have noted that Sweet Briar’s closure is just one more situation in a growing national trend that places online or community colleges above expensive liberal arts colleges, particularly same-gender or rural institutions. Online and community colleges usually offer more directly tangible programs, something that younger generations have prioritized in recent years due to a weaker job market. Bloomburg Businessweek noted that small, private U.S. colleges are in a “death spiral” stemming directly from lower enrollment rates, and must compensate with strategic moves to add more programs, increase their endowments, and engage in more intense communications campaigns in order to stay relevant and competitive with other institutions of higher education. Other analysts agree, but note that small liberal arts colleges must go even further and “get serious about savings on costs”. Judith Shapiro, former Barnard president and current president of the Teagle Foundation, works with liberal arts colleges and other entities to implement financial and economic education programs for faculty, staff, and administration at colleges. These programs include information on topics such as market competition for students, people’s tendency to link quality and price, how tuition discount rates work, and the effects of a recurring expense, like salary raises, versus one-time capital improvements.
Forward-thinking, progressive same-gender liberal arts institutions such as Hollins College and Mary Baldwin College have integrated these financial education programs into training and curriculum, with much success. Female economists such as Catherine Bond Hill, current president of Vassar College, emphasize the importance of prioritizing private same-gender education, and have also begun working with women’s colleges to balance budgets and experiment with innovative economic policies in order to keep these institutions’ doors open. Hill notes that “we need to be educating more students in America at the college level, not fewer. The economics are challenging…I wish they had experimented and innovated to address the challenges, demonstrating to others how to make education available at lower cost.” While the closure of Sweet Briar is unfortunate, it may well set a precedent that encourages same-gender liberal arts colleges to be proactive about adjusting their finances and balancing their budgets to remain competitive among other institutions of higher education in the United States, before it’s too late.