On Tuesday this week Sweet Briar College, the 114-year-old women’s school famous for its equestrian program and “empowering and educating young women to build and reshape their world however their passions lead them,” announced that it was closing. The class of 2015 will be its last.
According to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Sweet Briar College said it will close at the end of this academic year because of “insurmountable financial challenges” blamed on the dwindling number of women interested in single-sex education and the pressures on small, liberal arts schools.
The private, rural college near Lynchburg will hold its last commencement May 16 and cease operations Aug. 25 at the end of the summer session after more than a century of educating women.
What did the school in? Well, the problem is basically financial. Despite an $88 million endowment, it was hurt seriously by the financial meltdown of 2008 and had problems with financial aid and getting enough students to enroll.
That’s the trigger. The cause, however, is very familiar.
Sweet Briar discovered what most other women’s colleges have figured out: the finishing school model doesn’t work in the 21st century. And so these schools have to find some other reason to exist.
Some (Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, Wells College) began to admit men. Some (Radcliffe, Pembroke College, Kirkland College) essentially merged into nearby men’s colleges. Some (Barnard, Spelman) remain independent but are closely affiliated with other institutions.
Some others (Pine Manor, Trinity Washington) remain single-sex, but have began to focus on educating historically disadvantaged women. Others (e.g. Smith) have enthusiastically embraced radical feminism. A few (Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, Scripps College) have managed to split the difference, and remain single-sex while attracting a diverse set of students. These colleges also have the advantage of proximity to other, more standard, colleges.
But Sweet Briar, a tiny college built on a former plantation 12 miles outside of Lynchburg, Virginia, was in a difficult spot. It was hard to convince young women the school would be any good for their potential careers (where would one intern?) and the school never figured how to attract new types of women when there were so many other ways to study the liberal arts in America today.
It’s no doubt a sad week for many students and alumni but, as pundit Wendy Kaminer (Smith, ’71) once explained, such schools were created for a time in which women’s opportunities for higher education were limited. The fact that this is no longer the case is something to celebrate: “if women’s colleges become unnecessary, if women’s colleges become irrelevant, that’s a sign of our success.”