Here's the failed plan to save the Virginia college that ended up imploding

Sweet Briar College abruptly announced Tuesday that the school would close after the spring 2015 semester, surprising students and faculty at the women’s liberal arts college in Virginia.

However, the college had been in trouble for some time. In 2011, burdened with declining enrollment numbers and in need of new revenue sources, Sweet Briar unveiled a plan that was supposed to save the school.

The plan — called “A Plan for Sustainable Excellence” — was developed under former Sweet Briar president Jo Ellen Parker and called for, among other potential solutions, increased recruitment of potential students.

“Sweet Briar faces one immediate and imperative need: to grow enrollment as aggressively as possible without construction of additional facilities,” according to the 2011 plan.

In particular, the college hatched a plan to find students who were highly likely to attend Sweet Briar, thus maintaining a high “yield” — the per cent of admitted students who end up enrolling in the college.

Here’s how the college planned to grow its enrollment:

Sweet Briar’s admissions and recruiting strategy needs to be appropriate to a small, highly distinctive, “niche” educational experience. That is, the strategy needs to assume a highly efficient and relatively narrow admissions funnel. Like any niche or highly specialised product or experience, Sweet Briar’s best strategy is to rely on identifying and reaching those most likely to value what it offers as early as possible in the recruiting process and then cultivating them intensively.

In a footnote, the plan states, “Rather than attempting to attract many thousands of inquirers and accepting a relatively low conversion and yield rate — a ‘wide funnel’ — Sweet Briar should refine its ability to identify and contact high-likelihood prospective students and focus on them — a ‘narrow funnel.'”

The 2011 plan sought to recruit equestrians, environmentalists, and Girl Scouts, among other groups. It also called for increased recruitment in the area surrounding Sweet Briar, “with specific attention to demographic diversity (responding to research about the geographical preferences of prospective students from Latina and African-American populations),” among other nearby groups.

Sweet Briar College Students Campus Riding HorsesScreenshot Via YouTubeSweet Briar College students riding horses around campus.

This seems to be where the 2011 plan failed the school. Rather than finding more students who would likely attend the school if accepted and maintaining its yield rate, the opposite appears to have happened.

Since this plan was put forward in 2011, Sweet Briar’s yield and enrollment dropped significantly, even as applications soared — rising from 643 in 2011 to 936 in 2014.

The overall enrollment at the college dropped from 610 for the 2011-2012 academic year to 561 for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Likewise, Sweet Briar’s yield was 36.8% for the 2011-2012 academic year, and it fell to 20.9% by the 2014-2015 academic year. The yield — a very desirable statistic for colleges — had actually been growing for the two years prior to the 2011 plan.

Although Sweet Briar seems to have succeeded in targeting potential students to apply to the school, it may have faced insurmountable challenges in actually convincing those students to attend once admitted.

In a statement Tuesday announcing the college’s closing, Sweet Briar administrators cited several trends that informed the decision to close, including the declining number of female students interested in all-women colleges and the dwindling number of students overall interested in small, rural liberal arts colleges.

This unfortunately echoes the very problems that the 2011 plan was hoping to address. As it states, “Sweet Briar seeks to be the example that proves that ‘small’ can be dynamic and vital, that ‘rural’ can be sophisticated and connected, and that the liberal arts as traditionally understood gain meaning when they engage reflectively with practical experience.”

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