Sweet Briar is one of those obscure but vaguely elite colleges that average Americans have heard about but are totally clueless about where they are located. Bowdoin? Colgate? Williams? Amherst? Where in the hell are these places?
|Sweet Briar College: Too Far From a Starbucks
But Sweet Briar is expensive. The sticker price to attend Sweet Briar for a year is just under $35,000 in tuition and fees. And that doesn't include the cost of oats for your horse or the artisan cheese you will eat when you are studying abroad in France.
According to an article written by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed, Sweet Briar is closing for several reasons. First, students are less and less enamored with rural colleges. Even though Sweet Briar's campus--located on 3200 rural Virginia acres--is stunningly beautiful, most young people want to be where the action is, which is in the cities.
As Sweet Briar's President James F. Jones Jr. put it, "We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks."
Second, single-sex colleges have fallen out of fashion. Single-sex institutions have been totally wiped out in the public sector after the Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi University for Women and the Virginia Military Institute had discriminated on the basis of sex due to their single-sex admission policies. And most private colleges that started out as single-sex institutions now admit both women and men.
And of course, it is getting harder and harder to determine a student's gender, which makes single-sex admissions policies a bit awkward. The New York Times Magazine ran a story about transgender students at Wellesley that identified some of the complexity of gender issues at a private women's liberal arts college.
Third, it is harder and harder for private colleges that are not in the top tier to make a go of it. As Jaschik's article noted, only about one out of five women who were admitted to Sweet Briar chose to enroll there.
Sweet Briar and most private colleges try to sweeten the deal for potential students by discounting their tuition fees. At Sweet Briar, the so-called discount rate for attractive first-year students was 62.8 percent in 2014. That's right--the real cost for selected first-year students was only about one third of the sticker price.
So who pays the sticker price? Only suckers like you, Mom and Pop.
I say good riddance to Sweet Briar and all the overpriced private liberal arts colleges that failed to offer a product that students wanted at a price that families could afford. They have brought their demise on themselves by jacking up the sticker price of tuition and then giving discounts to special students who are selected based on criteria that are less than transparent. These schools have been operating more like used-car dealers than academics in the way they have sought to attract students, and now the jig is up.
Moreover, in my opinion, the vaunted value of a liberal arts education at one of these joints is vastly overrated. Many of the professors at these elite institutions are peddling postmodernism under the guise of a liberal arts education. And you don't need to attend an expensive private college to achieve the wry, edgy cynicism of a postmodernist. Just watch Jon Stewart on television.
The crucial fact is this: the non-elite private liberal arts colleges are surviving almost totally on the federal student aid program; and students are having to borrow too much money to receive a non-spectacular education from these places.
What will replace Sweet Briar and the other overpriced, private liberal arts colleges as the purveyors of quality post-secondary education? I don't know. But I think it is likely that a great many private liberal arts colleges will close their doors before we figure it out.
Scott Jaschik. (2015, March 4). Sweet Briar College will shut down. Inside Higher Ed. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/03/04/sweet-briar-college-will-shut-down
Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, 478 U.S. 718 (1982).
Ruth Padawer. (2014, October 15). When Women Become Men at Wellesley. New York Times Magazine. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/magazine/when-women-become-men-at-wellesley-college.html?_r=0
Ry Rivard. (2014, July 2). Discount Escalation. Inside Higher Ed. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/02/prices-rise-colleges-are-offering-students-steeper-discounts-again
United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996).