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The Residential Liberal Arts Elephant in the Room

This Spring, Administrative Officers across the country got to speak to their nervous boards and alumni, to allay fears that their schools wouldn’t be the next Sweet Briar College (which indicated it would be closing at the end of the Summer 2015 term, after precipitously deciding – over a single weekend – to shutter the 114 year old women’s college).

What little is known of the decision to close Sweet Briar is troubling to many liberal arts schools. The barely unspoken fear: Is this us in a few years?

Sweet Briar is an extremely small school: only 513 students. The school has an endowment of $84 million dollars – which isn’t substantially different from many other small residential colleges – but with most of these funds being restricted. Their bond rating was downgraded from “stable” to BBB “negative” by S&P, and reportedly the school hasn’t enough usable cash to pay down debt. And, while their discount rate (the rate representing what students really pay vs. the stated list price) has been rising, there are other small schools with even higher discount rates.

Current trends are against righting the ship. Single-sex colleges are less attractive to students, students are less and less attracted to bucolic liberal arts campuses located in the middle of nowhere, and incoming students are more demanding of amenities and facilities. If you can’t attract students, can’t borrow money to upgrade facilities, and you can’t pay down debt, your options are severely limited.

Is Sweet Briar College the “canary in the coal mine?”

For a certain type of residential college experience, yes. Yes, it is.

In tomorrow’s cast, we’ll discuss possible solutions, and the headwinds that lie ahead for the residential liberal arts college experience, as currently constructed.

Change will come – the question is, will small residential colleges innovate, or abdicate.

Go, and be you.

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