In a bid to stave off insolvency, Sweet Briar College is undertaking a major restructuring of its business model — hacking out administrative costs, reorganizing the curriculum, clarifying its mission, and slashing the cost of attendance by 32 percent. In the new academic year, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board will total $34,000, down from $50,055 previously.
That’s still high compared to the cost of a public education, but very competitive compared to the cost of attendance at other private, liberal arts universities. Moreover, as one of the few remaining women’s-only higher ed institutions left in the United States, Sweet Briar stands out with its educational mission: graduating “women of consequence.”
“Sweet Briar is in a very unique position to make these big sweeping changes,” President Meredith Woo told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’re building from the point of almost zero.”
The women’s college, located north of Lynchburg, nearly closed in 2015 after deteriorating finances prompted the board of directors to vote unanimously in favor of a shut-down. Alumni rallied to save the institution, raising $12 million to help cover 2015-16 expenses. Woo, former dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, was recruited to turn the college around.
The T-D describes the momentous changes that have been enacted in a time that is remarkably short by the standards of ossified academic decision-making:
The curriculum change, which was led by a faculty task force over the course of three months, focuses the women’s-only school’s core on women’s leadership with students taking 10 to 12 “integrated courses” that “refocus Sweet Briar’s general education requirements on its greatest strength: developing “women of consequence.”
It also abolishes academic departments in favor of three interdisciplinary “centers of excellence,” which Woo said will eliminate levels of bureaucracy by getting rid of the administrative units. The academic calendar at Sweet Briar is moving from 15-week semesters to a 3-12-12-3 schedule with the goal of increasing experiential learning opportunities.
“We want to let the world know that excellent liberal arts education can be affordable,” Woo said in an interview.
Enrollment has declined by half, to about 300 students, since the beginning of Sweet Briar’s highly publicized difficulties. But Woo expects the student count will rebound as the reformed curriculum attracts attention.
Woo did not discuss finances with the T-D. But she expressed optimism about the college’s future: “Women’s education is only beginning around the world. This is a great time to be a women’s college.”
Bacon’s bottom line: It’s one thing for loyal alumni to scrape up millions of dollars to keep the college afloat for a year or two. It’s quite another to develop a sustainable business model. Small colleges around the country are pruning and retrenching, but none that I know of has undertaken such a dramatic transformation. Sweet Briar bears watching. If the college can thrive by slashing costs and tuition, it could serve as an exemplar for the higher-ed industry generally.There are currently no comments highlighted.