How Sweet Briar can save itself



Whether the “Saving Sweet Briar” campaign succeeds in bringing the college back from the brink of closure, the announcement last month of its imminent demise is still a harbinger of tough times ahead for other private liberal-arts colleges. In a conflict between closing with dignity and fighting with every last breath and dollar, how Sweet Briar College prevails or fails will be instructive for all small colleges, single-gender and coed.

As one aligned with fighting to the end (and as a former president of two women’s colleges), I offer the following strategy for reinventing and reinvigorating not only Sweet Briar but its financially troubled peers as well. The plan is built on three core principles.

First, survival dilemmas require facing harsh realities immediately and unequivocally. For Sweet Briar, that means acknowledging that remaining a women’s college in rural Virginia is not a long-term option. Moreover, the media attention on the viability of women’s colleges only exacerbates Sweet Briar’s problems.

Second, reinventing a moribund institution necessitates a change in the operational model. The curriculum, pedagogy, and student services must attract and retain more students. For Sweet Briar, the model should include eliminating athletics, fostering social responsibility, starting a three-year curriculum for all students, and integrating competencies that will distinguish its graduates.

Sports are expensive and add nothing to academic excellence. Many high-school students dislike sports; Sweet Briar and colleges like it would do well to direct their appeals to those students — the ones who participate in band or choir, act in plays, or find meaning in community service. Sweet Briar should recruit serious and shy students, because they would blossom there. Wellness programs, rather than sports, should create the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.

Among the two million college-going high-school graduates every year, there must be a significant number who do not want to party hearty but who actually desire a rigorous education as the core of their college experience. There are even more parents who would gladly pay for and even make sacrifices to afford a campus culture of academic excellence and social responsibility.

While many colleges are exploring three-year degree programs, none are designing a three-year curriculum for every student. With the model I propose, and without the distractions of athletics and partying, students will take 18 credit hours each semester rather than the traditional 16, completing 108 of the 128 graduation credits in six semesters. The remaining 20 credit hours could be achieved in internships during the two summers, providing valuable work experience.

To prepare Sweet Briar students for lives of meaning and purpose, the college should emphasize wellness, financial literacy (budgeting, banking, mortgages, savings, investment), presentational literacy (communicating effectively in public speaking, group projects, and social media), writing across the curriculum, technical education for the digital age, skills in strategic thinking, entrepreneurial and risk-taking mind-set, aesthetic appreciation and creativity, and philosophical/spiritual grounding, equipping its students with a credo and a worldview that anchor them and enable them to flourish.

Third, colleges with limited resources must develop a financial model that ensures long-term fiscal health. At Sweet Briar, eliminating intercollegiate athletics could save as much as $1 million a year and prevent millions of dollars more from being spent on expanded sports facilities to attract male athletes.

Reducing nonfaculty staff is another cost saving, made possible because students would be academically oriented, taking 18 credit hours per semester. A liberal-arts curriculum is among the most cost-effective collection of majors, playing to Sweet Briar’s historic strengths in the humanities, social sciences, arts, and sciences. Dedicated faculty members would welcome infusing their teaching with principles of wellness, presentational literacy, effective writing, tech savvy, change management, strategic thinking, aesthetic appreciation, and philosophical grounding.

The financial model must eliminate tuition discounting as a pricing strategy. Sweet Briar should drop its sticker price from $47,000 to a firm $25,000 for tuition, fees, room, and board, which is a bargain for a rigorous, relevant and personalized college education. A total cost of $75,000 over three years would be substantially less expensive than public universities, where the average cost is $18,950, and where most students do not graduate in four years. Additionally, Sweet Briar graduates would be joining the work force sooner, making the savings even greater.

Media attention extolling a resurrected Sweet Briar College could generate millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising. A reinvented and reinvigorated Sweet Briar would need 0.022 percent of those collegebound high-school graduates to enroll a freshman class of 440. With a modest improvement in retention (85 percent of the original group in the second year and 80 percent of that group in the third year), the college would sustain a total enrollment of about 1,200. Net revenue of $25,000 per student generates $30 million. Eliminating athletics and reducing the size of staff could produce savings in excess of $2 million.

By combining increased tuition revenue and budget cuts with reinvigorated fund raising, endowment earnings, and new revenue streams developed by entrepreneurial administrators and board members, this financial model could save Sweet Briar and colleges like it in the short term and position them for growth in the years ahead as innovative leaders in residential liberal-arts education.

The irony is that the “new” college would be very much like the Sweet Briar Institute in 1901, whose charter stated that the “central scope and object” was to “impart to its students such education in sound learning, and such physical, moral and religious training as shall, in the judgment of its directors, best fit them to be useful members of society.”

Author Bio: Peter T. Mitchell is a former president of Lasell College, Columbia College in South Carolina, and Albion College.