Sweet Briar College — a small 114-year-old women’s liberal arts college in Virginia — has caused a lot of debate over the future of higher education since it announced last week that it will close after this semester.
Sweet Briar has a $US94 million endowment, but it also has many forces working against it — specifically, the fact that it’s a small, private, all-women’s non-elite college in a rural area.
Other colleges that fit this profile may also be more in danger of closing than, say, an elite, co-ed school in a major city.
“We’ve been seeing a decline in single gender education for 60 years, with women’s colleges closing or going co-ed,” said Jason Lane, the director of educational studies at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and an education professor at the University of Albany
“I think with rural education too, folks are looking for areas with more activities or larger college towns,” he added.
Colleges that are in danger also have low draw rates, which is calculated by dividing a college’s yield rate over admissions rate, according to Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University.
A school’s draw rate reflects its market power and shows how many students would like to go to the college but can’t, he said. With a low draw rate, a college doesn’t have much excess demand to fall back on if it can’t meet enrollment goals, according to Boeckenstedt, who also runs the Higher Ed Data Stories blog.
Two other characteristics that Boeckenstedt highlighted were schools having weak financials per student and a relatively small enrollment — generally under 1,000-1,500 students.
Sweet Briar, which has fewer than 800 undergrads, had struggled with declining enrollment and a dwindling “yield” — the number of admitted students who decide to go to the college.
Still, the factors working against Sweet Briar didn’t mean it was destined to fail, according to Boeckenstedt, who recently put together a chart of college enrollment trends and financials, which The Washington Post featured last week.
“To jump at one single instance and make it a trend for an industry would be a mistake, especially because this was a place that none of the pundits were predicting to fall,” he said. “At this point, I think you can only look at it as an anomaly.”
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