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Closing Liberal Arts Colleges: Are They Worth Saving?

04-23-2015
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WASHINGTON -- The rich tradition of America's small colleges is slowly dying, strangled by financial problems and a changing education landscape. Twenty-five colleges have closed in the last decade, and almost 40 more have been acquired by larger schools or merged. 

One of the latest schools to join this list is Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Sweet Briar is a 114-year-old, all-female liberal arts school with a beautiful 3,000-acre campus near the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Sweet Briar's legacy will come to an end this year following a mid-semester announcement that the graduating class of 2015 will be the school's last.

Interim Sweet Briar President James Jones announced in March that the school will be closing due to insurmountable financial challenges and decreased enrollment.

Worth the Fight?

Juniors like Jessica Barry will now have to deal with the hardship of finding a new school to attend for her final year of college.

"I didn't believe it. How could a school just close?" Barry asked. "No one's giving us straight answers, and we're betrayed by the people we're supposed to be putting our trust in."

Many faculty, students, and alumni are angered with the school's closure and have rallied together to try and save it.

Shortly after the announcement of the closure, Sweet Briar's faculty unanimously voted "No Confidence" in the president and board of trustees and formally asked them to resign.

"We all agree it was an ill-advised decision after we've taken a look at the evidence ourselves," history professor John Ashbrook said.

With the ongoing legal battle to keep the school's doors open, many are questioning if the school is even worth saving.

Higher eduation researchers like Nathan Harden are not surprised to see Sweet Briar's administration close the school. Harden thinks that even with Sweet Briar's seemingly healthy $94 million endowment, the dwindling enrollment numbers have put the school in a perilous situation for the future.

"Higher education has just gotten too expensive; that's the bottom line," Harden said.

He believes that student loan debt is getting so high, rising college students are no longer going to take out student loans when they can receive reputable degrees online for a fraction of the cost.

Harden predicts in his article, The End of the University as We Know It, that in 50 years the U.S. will lose roughly half of the colleges and universities open today. 

Making it Work

The good news for smaller liberal arts schools is some facing closure have not only kept their doors open, but are thriving.

One of these schools is Trinity Washington University, located in Washington, D.C. Trinity Washington is a historically all-female Catholic school that has been open since 1897.

Almost 20 years ago, Trinity's student body had fallen to an unsustainable 300 students and the college was in a perilous financial situation. Trinity's President Patricia McGuire was told she had "to fix the school or close it."

"We had to move away from just being a liberal arts college and becoming a college that was diversified," McGuire said. "Higher education is in a moment where the old institution models don't work. Whether its Trinity or whether it's a large university, we are all feeling the stress and the challenge of needing to change."

Trinity decided they needed to turn their attention from continuing to recruit affluent Catholic females who were beginning to favor coeducational schools.

Under President McGuire's leadership, Trinity began to focus on recruitng the tens of thousands of women from very low income households who thought of higher education as an elusive dream.

Although some critics questioned shifting from recruiting Catholic women, President McGuire said, "It's not about educating Catholics; it's about educating people in the spirit of our faith, people for whom an education is truly salvation in many ways, creating economic power for low-income women so they can care for their children, so they can get good jobs."

Presdient McGuire said she had to learn to make tuition an affordable price for women of all income levels and expand the degrees and programs offered.

By reinventing the student body, changing curriculum, and developing sustainable financial aid, Trinity grew from nearly 300 students to more than 2,000 today.  

While this action may not fit the tradition at Sweet Briar, Trinity proves that through innovation and tough choices even small schools can thrive in the changing landscape of higher education.

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