The announcement that Sweet Briar College, a venerable private women's college with over a century of history and tradition, is scheduled to close in August of 2015 was shocking to most who heard the news. While there has been discussion over the past several years about the prospect of various colleges closing due to the harsh realities of the higher education marketplace, most observers didn't expect Sweet Briar College to be one of them. Many Sweet Briar College alumnae are fighting to keep their alma mater in operation, and it remains to be seen whether the college will close its doors later this year.
Regardless of whether Sweet Briar College survives, this situation is indicative of a larger issue in American higher education. Sweet Briar College is unique in that it is a private women's liberal arts college in a rural area. It isn't like most other colleges and in a world in which even the President of the United States sees fit to criticize liberal arts education, this is seen by many as a impediment rather than a blessing.
It is perfectly legitimate to raise questions about the high cost of tuition at private liberal arts colleges, and whether such costs are sustainable over the long run. But, as pointed out in Sheryl Gay Stolberg's New York Times article cited above, 43 percent of Sweet Briar College's students receive need-based Pell Grants and 37 percent are first-generation college students. Perhaps Sweet Briar College could reduce its standard tuition rate to reflect to be more competitive and to reflect actual tuition paid by most students, as Converse College (another Southern private women's college) did, but it's not obvious that sticker price was the prime problem for Sweet Briar College or a major hindrance to attendance.
In any event, women's colleges are a form of higher education that is attractive to many students and provides opportunities for women attracted to that academic experience that they may not receive elsewhere. American higher education shouldn't become a homogenized system of schools that provide largely the same academic and cultural experience for students. One of the glories of America's higher education system has been its heterogeneity, in terms of everything from big state universities, religious institutions, STEM or arts-oriented colleges and a general variety of institutions that reflect the diversity of this country. If colleges like Sweet Briar College fail, that diminishes the opportunities for all students and that is not a good thing for American education and culture.
Sweet Briar College isn't for everyone, but the same could be said for Texas A&M, the California Institute of Technology and Notre Dame. While in the end every school must be a good steward of its resources, and inevitably some schools will shut down because of insurmountable financial woes, a society in which any college is largely interchangeable with another will be a poorer one, and the closure of schools like Sweet Briar College moves us further in that direction. Hopefully the alumnae and supporters of Sweet Briar College will find a way to save it. But if they don't, one hopes that this is a wake-up call to other institutions of higher education to do what they must to preserve themselves and to provide educational opportunities that allow different individuals to flourish in the environment that's best for them, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to education that will diminish every school.