Women’s colleges across the country declining in number
The administration of Sweet Briar College, an all women’s school in Sweet Briar, Virginia, announced on March 3 the school would close after its summer session, with the Class of 2015 being the last graduating class.
According to a statement issued by the college, Sweet Briar is facing “insurmountable financial challenges” due to decreased interest in single-sex education and the college’s rural setting. The college’s Board of Directors considered merging with another college or becoming coed, but ruled out both options as “not viable,” according to The New York Times, because of the financial burden they would present. James F. Jones Jr., Sweet Briar interim president, told The New York Times the school would need a $250 million endowment to survive, a number significantly larger than Sweet Briar’s current $85 million endowment.
Paul Rice, board chairman, said a shift to being coed would be just as difficult.
“You don’t just take ‘ladies’ off of every other bathroom door and put ‘men’ up,” he told The New York Times. “You have to add programs and facilities, athletics. All of these things take significant investment and time.”
While Sweet Briar’s situation is difficult, it isn’t unique. Other women’s colleges have faced similar financial challenges, but chose a different solution. One of those institutions is Wells College in Aurora, New York, which began enrolling men in the fall of 2005.
“Our enrollment at the time was frighteningly low,” Milene Z. Morfei, professor of psychology and Wells alumna, said. “The College hoped that allowing men to enroll would bring us a much-needed increase in our student body … [It] was deemed necessary for our survival.”
Single-sex colleges used to be the only available institutions for women seeking higher education, but they’ve been on the decline. Fifty years ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the U.S., according to the Women’s College Coalition. However, Sweet Briar’s closure will leave only 44 all women’s colleges in the U.S., according to a March 26 article by National Public Radio. With those figures, many have begun to ask whether single-sex education is economically and socially feasible.
Susan Scrimshaw, president of the Sage Colleges, including all-women’s Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, said, “I’ve been predicting that by 2020 there will be fewer than 30 women’s colleges, but the ones that remain by then will be strong.”
She identified characteristics of women’s colleges that detract from their success.
“There are certain characteristics of [women’s colleges] that will and won’t survive,” Scrimshaw said. “[Sweet Briar is] geographically isolated with no access to a bigger community where students can interact with a coed environment, [and] it may not have moved in the last 20 years to create the curricula to attract a wide variety of students.”
Scrimshaw said graduate programs help to make a school competitive, but by law they must be coed.
“Graduate programs change the campus, which I don’t think [Sweet Briar was] willing to do,” she said.
While Scrimshaw wasn’t completely surprised at the announced closure, Sweet Briar’s students and faculty felt differently.
“Up until [Paul Rice’s announcement], nobody had any idea that they were planning to close the school,” Marcia Thom Kaley, assistant professor of music, said. “It was a complete shock.”
Others reacted with a combination of sadness, anger and proactivity.
“There was a lot of sadness at first,” Holly Nadel, a junior music major at Sweet Briar, said. “Classes were cancelled for the day so that people could get the tears out of their systems. Then the anger showed up, causing the emergence of the Saving Sweet Briar movement, and, eventually, legal action against the college.”
The legal situation around Sweet Briar’s intended closure is complicated and has changed rapidly since March. According to The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer filed a lawsuit March 30 alleging Sweet Briar’s Board and President breached their duties as trustees of the will of the college’s founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams. She also asserted the administration is misappropriating funds that were collected for the operation of Sweet Briar for purposes of closing it down, which The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported is a violation of Virginia’s charitable solicitation law. On April 14, Judge James Updike granted a 60-day injunction, which will prevent Sweet Briar from using charitable contributions in the closing process. The order does, however, allow the college to use funds to help students transfer to other schools.
Sweet Briar College now must navigate what to do with its sprawling 3,250 acres of land after its closure. In her will, Williams mandated her land be designated for an all-female school and could never be sold or used for any other purpose. Business Insider reported a judge may apply cy-prés law, which would allow Williams’ land to be transferred to another organization that shares the goal of educating women.
In the meantime, members of the Sweet Briar community are trying to figure out their next steps too.
For professors who own houses on Sweet Briar land, that means likely being forced to move, adding insult to the injury of a sudden layoff. A group of faculty have also announced their intention to sue Sweet Briar College for breach of employment contracts, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
For students, it means deciding where to continue their education.
“I plan on holding out as long as I can to see if Sweet Briar is going to stay open,” Nadel said, “However, if I have to, I’ll transfer to another college.”
Nadel has been on medical leave during the 2014-15 school year, but she decided to return to Sweet Briar for her final year of college a week before the announcement of its closure.
“Needless to say, that [announcement] was a bit gut-wrenching for me,” she said.
Sweet Briar has attempted to smooth the transition for its students by creating a “teach-out” program, which is an agreement with 15 colleges and universities — some of which are women’s colleges and some of which are coed — to accept Sweet Briar transfers under an expedited process for fall 2015 admission. While the program’s intention is clear, many have questioned its efficacy.
“[It’s] supposed to offer a seamless transition to the students, and the teach-out schools are doing the best they can … but a lot of our students are getting an inordinate amount of financial aid [at Sweet Briar] that teach-out [colleges] can’t match,” Thom Kaley said. “Almost every day I have a student in my office who is wondering how they can afford to stay in college … Some are considering dropping out.”
Concerns about survival and student cost are prevalent at every college, regardless of its gender demographic.
“Any college president isn’t doing their job if we’re not always thinking about sustainability,” Scrimshaw said. “It’s our job to think about the long-term future, but I don’t think about it in the context of a women’s college alone. It’s a very complicated environment today, and keeping a college on the leading edge while keeping cost down for students is challenging.”
Concerns about sustainability and long-term success may be universal in higher education, but women’s colleges have to especially prioritize their reputations in order to thrive.
“Somewhat lesser-known women’s colleges have become unsustainable,” Morfei said. “Young women are less likely to choose them. And therefore, they never find out how wonderful those institutions are. Unless the institution has a national reputation like Smith or Wellesley, they don’t seem to be economically feasible.”
However, one example of a thriving women’s college is Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia University in New York City.
“Admissions numbers are higher than ever, so there seems to be a place and demand for single-sex education at the college level,” Lauren Beltrone, a junior cognitive science student at Barnard, said.
Many agree all-women’s education still has an important function despite the social progress that women have made since single-sex institutions first opened.
“Education is still not equal by gender, and women need places to become leaders,” Nadel said, “Women’s colleges are a safe space for women to grow.”
Morfei said the advantages of women’s colleges are that “women assume all leadership roles, there is no opposite-sex ‘distraction,’ [and] women who might be reluctant to assert themselves — in or out of the classroom — learn to be strong and confident.”
Amelia Ley, a junior romance languages and literature student at all-women’s Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, also appreciated the activist culture on her campus.
“A movement called MoHonest launched a huge campaign last year about confronting microaggressions as well as active antagonism against women of color on campus,” she said. “…How many [colleges] have a student body that is so politically aware, so passionate that they are constantly bringing problems to light and trying to do something about it? I’d rather be here than at any campus where problems are ignored for the sake of preserving the status quo.”
Nadel also found that open-mindedness important.
“Women’s colleges are LGBTQ* safe places, even in the South,” she said.
Yet despite these advantages, women’s colleges continue to decrease in popularity.
“Most young women don’t go looking for women’s colleges,” Scrimshaw said. “Most of our students look for the programs, then do our campus visit and fall in love on the tour.”
Very few female high school graduates actively seek out a single-sex environment, Scrimshaw said, and Ley is in that minority.
“I think there is the problem of part of the student body seeing being a women’s college as being a downside and the other part seeing that as a draw,” Ley said.
Nadel, on the other hand, didn’t see it as either a downside or a draw until she actually arrived at Sweet Briar.
“Sweet Briar was the only women’s college I applied to,” Nadel said. “I found the gender composition of a given school to be a neutral factor, but … almost all of my transfer options are women’s colleges. I far prefer the [single-sex] environment,” she said.
Keeping that environment alive is important, Thom Kaley said.
“If you can show intrinsic value of a single-sex liberal arts education and how it translates into growth and empowerment in a young woman’s life, you can begin to see what a consultant simply cannot,” she said. “Young girls enter Sweet Briar College and graduate as grown women. They learn to have a voice and how to use their voices in every area of their lives. You don’t get the same result in a huge university setting or in a coed environment.”
Although the rapidly changing legal details leave Sweet Briar students in a complicated tug-of-war between hoping for the best and planning for the worst, one thing is simple and constant: their pride.
“No matter where I end up next, I will proudly call myself a Sweet Briar woman,” Nadel said.
Sabina Leybold is a sophomore speech-language pathology major who wishes Ithaca College would just kick out all the males. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.