Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Trustee-Assisted Suicide: The Death of Sweet Briar College

The following news is likely to seriously shake a good bit of the higher education world for a while:
Sweet Briar College Will Shut Down
This is a shocking decision for a college that has a good reputation, full accreditation, and an intact endowment (in the $85-$90 million range). Colleges that go under usually do so after long and painful struggles, and are often forced over the edge by the weight of financial obligations they are no longer able to meet. That's not the case here - the patient, as it were, is still healthy today. But it's on a path, or so the leadership believes, to eventual destruction.

I tend to accept the trustees' argument that this is the most merciful decision. Down the road from me  is another small niche college, Wilberforce, which has been going through a most painful effort to keep itself alive for the past several years. If it ultimately goes under - and it may very well - a lot of time, effort, and pain will have been spent, and a lot of students will get hurt in the process, to no avail. What Sweet Briar is doing now is far preferable to a long, lingering death with frantic but unsuccessful efforts to revive the patient.

Colleges are not people, of course. If a college can return itself to sustainability its lifespan may be very long indeed. But too often we don't ask the question - is that really possible? In this case, I think the Sweet Briar trustees have hit on the key question to ask: is the writing on the wall for small, mid-tier, niche liberal arts colleges?

I used to work for one such institution (not quite so small as Sweet Briar but not very large either), and I wonder to this day how it survives. Having spent much of last year going through the college search process with my daughter (who was admitted to several much more prestigious and well-heeled liberal arts colleges), I confronted the same question of that category in general. How many people are there who can afford to spend $20k or $25k or $30k per year - after all the financial aid is awarded - on their kid's education? That is beyond the means of most families, even those earning in the very low six figures.

I don't know the answers, in part because every school is different. As the article linked above points out, other schools in similar circumstances are choosing different paths and maybe those will work out. But from the standpoint of a family with one kid in college (and two more coming up behind), the economics are nearly overwhelming, especially given that there are MUCH more affordable options elsewhere. And with the rapid growth of income inequality in the US, the number of households who can afford this kind of education is not expanding.

One thing is clear: these kinds of institutions need to take a long, hard-nosed, difficult look at their futures. Some of them may survive, but they will do so only by adapting to become somewhat different from what they are now - which is itself a painful process. Some of them probably will not. I hope that those that will not will choose graceful exits. At least now they have a model to follow.

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