Two sharply distinct pictures have emerged about the financials of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, which abruptly announced its impending closure last month.
The all-women’s college blamed its closure on insurmountable financial obstacles. However, a lawsuit from the state of Virginia and a professor at the school have claimed Sweet Briar was in much better shape than it led the world to believe.
The lawsuit filed last month by the Commonwealth of Virginia — through Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer — claims the 114-year-old college didn’t do enough to stay open.
However, “insurmountable obstacles … ultimately caused the College’s closure,” Sweet Briar’s lawyer, Calvin “Woody” Fowler, said in a statement last week before the suit was filed.
In the statement, Fowler responds to claims that Sweet Briar’s endowment reached nearly $US100 million, which reportedly would have been enough to sustain the college for years.
“There is currently about $US84.8 million in the endowment, roughly $US65 million of which is restricted as to time and/or purpose. The College has approximately $US25 million in debt in two outstanding bond issues. Thus, the debt exceeds the unrestricted funds in the endowment,” Fowler said in the statement.
Moreover, he wrote, Sweet Briar needs to have 800 students enrolled to be sustainable but had just 532 students at the beginning of the current semester when the board voted to close.
The school was affected by an increasing tuition discount rate, Fowler said, as Sweet Briar went from covering 42% of tuition through scholarships and grants in 2008, to 62% for the current freshman class. Net tuition revenue was “eroded” by the increasing discount rate, Fowler writes, dropping from $US11 million in 2009 to $US8.5 million in 2014.
As local Virginia newspaper The Roanoke Times noted in an editorial last month, though, “Something just doesn’t add up here.”
After reviewing Sweet Briar’s financial forms, The Times found that over the past two fiscal years, the college’s assets actually grew — from $US160.6 million to $US163.9 million. Additionally, Sweet Briar’s liabilities dropped from $US30.7 million to $US29.5 million, according to The times.
With this new lawsuit against the college, it seems like there may have been some merit to questioning Sweet Briar’s claims.
As Amherst County Attorney Bowyer bluntly writes in the Virginia lawsuit against Sweet Briar, “the College’s financial condition does not warrant closure.”
Bowyer expands on this claim in her lawsuit, detailing how Sweet Briar’s financial situation may have actually gotten better in the past few years:
A review of the College’s annual financial statements from 2010 to 2014, shows that annual operating deficits were more than offset by the endowment’s investment gains, grants, gifts and alumnae giving. This pattern resulted in an increase of the College’s net assets (total assets minus total liabilities) over the last five years from $US126 million to $US134 million. During the same period, the College’s debt load decreased from approximately $US42 million to $US25 million while its endowment increased from $US85 million to $US95 million.
Likewise, alumnae activist group Saving Sweet Briar released a report this week from a forensic accountant questioning the college’s claims.
“Assuming the College’s finances are handled in a prudent and responsible way going forward, it would still remain financially viable,” Steve Spitzer, a CPA and certified fraud examiner, writes. “Our preliminary conclusion upon a review of the publicly-available data is that, as of approximately eight months before the closure announcement, the College was financially viable, and there was not an urgent financial reason to close.”
Sweet Briar College psychology professor Dan Gottlieb has also been putting together some charts that show how the school has stayed relatively stable over the course of the past decade. In particular, his charts on the cost of college and the endowment stand out.
In this chart, Gottlieb looks at how much students are actually paying for college, which, if it had dipped, means that the college is subsidizing more of tuition:
It seems that Sweet Briar had been getting roughly the same amount of funds from tuition for about two decades:
Here, Gottlieb shows the strength of Sweet Briar’s endowment compared to other all-women’s colleges:
And, in this chart, how Sweet Briar’s unrestricted endowment had stayed steady:
Sweet Briar College released the following statement about the lawsuit last week:
Sweet Briar College has the utmost respect for the Office of the County Attorney of Amherst; however, the claims asserted in the County Attorney’s Complaint are contrary to well-established Virginia law as expressed by both the General Assembly and the Supreme Court of Virginia. Sweet Briar’s counsel engaged in open dialogue with the County Attorney prior to the lawsuit being filed, and although the matter is now in litigation, Sweet Briar will remain receptive to further communications with the County Attorney on all matters as the litigation progresses.
The college also responded to the Saving Sweet Briar financial report:
Steve Spitzer’s comments yesterday closely mirror comments he made in a March 26 Saving Sweet Briar statement. His “initial review” not surprisingly supports his “preliminary analysis” of March 26, which also closely mirror the conclusions reached by the “group of advisors” to Saving SB released on March 18. Far from being an independent report, Mr. Spitzer’s work is paid for by Saving Sweet Briar.
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