You can do everything well and still fail

Subtitle: Some of you are focusing on the wrong things.

Subtitle: Life isn’t fair.

The board of Sweet Briar College announced today that it would cease operations with the end of the semester. It seems that they are taking a principled stand to go out on their own terms, with adequate resources to properly teach out the term and close down decently and in order. It is striking that SBC has a $94 million endowment, but over half of that is restricted in its use, significantly reducing the ability of the college to use endowment returns to fundoperations.

Sweet Briar is a fine institution that really does seem to do most everything well. Young women generally seem to thrive there, especially those that stay. Retention into the second year is not the greatest, but those that make it into the second year are pretty much going to graduate. From what I have observed the last 14 years from a distance, and on campus, it is a pretty special place.

The policy wonks have been excitedly discussing the increased applications and the declining yield rates.  The fact is that few young women seem to be really interested in attending a single-gender institution sitting on a mountain ridge an hour or four away from excitement and activity. I suspect there are far more than the approximately 200 that have enrolled each year, but finding them is not easy. As for the increased applications, those are easy enough to come by with a little work and little more mailing. A difference in 400 applications really is not that big deal to achieve with the available tools and consultants. It is much, much harder to increase the number of quality applications – applications from students really interested in what Sweet Briar offers, at a price that the students and the college can both afford.

The fact the entering students of 2013-14 had an 84% acceptance rate (Admissions tab) is pretty strong evidence that increasing applications alone may change very little.

A critical problem to my mind is the getting students in the door is only one part of the problem. A 63% graduation rate  is respectable rate, but for a small college with lots of one-on-one experience with faculty, I suspect most people believe it should be much higher. If not, what is the value of the small college experience? Again, as I said earlier, the “problem” (if it is a problem and not a feature of college) is in the first year retention. The entering class of 2008 had a 75% retention rate (148 students) into the second year. Six years later, 124 of those had graduated from Sweet Briar, or about 84 percent. A handful of others graduated from elsewhere in the Commonwealth. By prowling these data one can get a sense as to where some of the struggles are. It is a simple fact that any institution that struggles to constantly replace students that don’t persist to completion faces an uphill struggle for its existence.

But the fact remains that Sweet Briar is gem tucked away in the mountains. A gem like BridgewaterFerrum, Hollins, Lynchburg, Roanoke, and a host of other small, liberal arts colleges, that deserves more attention for all that it does well. Unfortunately the world is changing and it has never been fair.

I worry that we don’t wish to pay the costs to keep such experiences available. That we refuse to acknowledge that some things are not only somewhat expensive, they are also worth every penny.

On the other hand I admit to shopping at Walmart and Amazon. Not because of the price, but because of convenience. They are open when I have time. (But, if it is a stop on the way during “normal hours”  to just about anywhere else, I will avoid Walmart like the plague if I can get in and out quicker.) Small mom & pop stores are rarely open when I have time to shop. If I have to leave work early or go in late, the cost and inconvenience of the shopping trip has generally increased more than I wish to consider.

And this is the conundrum of the small rural college.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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