Woo-Global Politics

Meredith Woo has initiated numerous changes since she became president of Sweet Briar College last year. She’s “reset” tuition and revamped the school’s curriculum. Part of that has involved changing the school’s calendar to allow for three-week classes, one of which she taught this fall Here she is (at head of table) with her Global Politics students. Our editorial at left looks at how Sweet Briar has turned around since almost closing in 2015, recently winning awards for both its fund-raising and its innovation.

U.S. News & World-Report recently released its annual college rankings.

In the category of “most innovative schools,” James Madison University placed second and Christopher Newport University ranked 13th in the “regional schools” category.

George Mason University ranked 29th in the “national schools” category, which tells you something about George Mason’s stature these days.

In the “national liberal arts” school category, two Virginia schools made the list. The University of Richmond ranked 28th. Higher up on that list, though, another Virginia school finished 21st, tied with such heavyweights as Bowdoin College, Oberlin College and Swarthmore College.

That Virginia school is Sweet Briar College.

There are many remarkable things about this ranking, not the least of which is: Sweet Briar wasn’t even supposed to be here.

You’ll recall that in early 2015, Sweet Briar’s board tried to close the women’s college in Amherst County only to face an alumnae uprising that fought back in court — and won. Three years later, Sweet Briar is not only still open, it’s beating every other private school in Virginia in the vaunted U.S. News & World-Report rankings. There are lots of people who ought to be very proud about that — the alumnae who frantically took to Facebook to organize their legal resistance, Bedford Court Circuit Court Judge James Updike, who was favorably inclined toward their case and even Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who, after some initial reluctance, wound up overseeing the negotiations that ended with the alumnae taking over their school.

There was never any doubt, though, that Sweet Briar was a good school; now, based on these rankings, it’s an even better one. Ultimately, though, the question is: How is Sweet Briar doing financially?

Before we answer that, it’s important to remember that Sweet Briar was not really in financial trouble when the board tried to close it. At the time, it had an endowment bigger than many other schools its size, for instance. Sweet Briar’s problem was that over the years, its previous leadership had neglected student recruitment and fund-raising, which happen to be only the two most important things any college needs to survive. In early 2015, the board looked at the trendlines and, instead of trying to fix the problem, decided to call it quits.

The college’s success since then shows just how wrong that decision was.

Let’s look at fund-raising first. Before the attempted closure, the college raised $1.9 million on average per year in annual unrestricted funding and $6-8 million in restricted funding per year depending on the year. Testimony in the court case showed that Sweet Briar’s previous leadership simply didn’t try very hard to raise money — targeting alumnae from wealthy families, but completely missing the fact that many of its graduates from not-so-affluent backgrounds had gone on to have quite a bit of financial success. In just a few months in the spring of 2015, the Saving Sweet Briar alumnae group raised more than $21 million in gifts and pledges, which was critical in making the case that it could keep the college going.

The question then was whether Sweet Briar’s alumnae would continue to contribute at that rate. They have. In the fiscal year that just ended, Sweet Briar raised $18 million. This marks the third year in a row that the school has exceeded its fund-raising goal. Since 2015, the school has raised $53.7 million — an average of $17.9 million per year, more than double what the previous leadership had raised in some years. Earlier this year, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education gave Sweet Briar an award for its fund-raising.

Some context: In the most recent fiscal year, Hollins University raised $10.3 million. In the previous fiscal year Hollins wrapped up a special fund-raising drive that coincided with its 175th anniversary; in that year, it raised a record $20.9 million. There’s always the question of “donor fatigue,” of course, but it sure looks like Sweet Briar is now raising what it should have been raising all along. Sweet Briar’s previous leadership said the money wasn’t there; that was obviously wrong.

Another notable statistic: Sweet Briar’s endowment, one standard measure of fiscal health, is growing. When the school re-opened in fall 2015, the endowment was $65 million. Now it’s $75 million.

Now for the caveats: When the alumnae took over, Sweet Briar’s budget was so out of balance that much of that fund-raising simply went toward paying the bills. The Chronicle of Philanthropy says that at most private schools the size of Sweet Briar, fund-raising accounts for 10 percent or less of the budget. In the first year after the alumnae took over, fund-raising accounted for 82 percent of the budget. Alumnae really were keeping the school open. Now that figure is down to 39 percent and dropping. “Sweet Briar is now on a financially sustainable path,” says President Meredith Woo.

One reason the budget was so out of balance was that the school lost a lot of students when they thought the college would close, and it’s taken time to rebuild those numbers back up. When Sweet Briar announced it was closing, it stopped recruiting an incoming class and applicants naturally went elsewhere. When Sweet Briar opened in fall 2015, it was lucky to have any freshman class at all. Now those students are seniors — all 31 of them. The classes that follow them are much bigger. This fall, Sweet Briar welcomed 111 freshmen, a 42 percent increase over last year, plus 13 transfers. The current enrollment is 323. Before the attempted closure, enrollment was 641. “I think it’s realistic to say we can get there in about three years,” Woo says.

One reason Sweet Briar made the U.S. News “most innovative” list is that under Woo the school has cut tuition to be competitive with public colleges (from $50,000 to $21,000) and revamped the school’s curriculum. That hasn’t been without controversy, of course. Few changes on a college campus are. The ones at Sweet Briar have been closely watched across academia. Woo says too many small liberal arts colleges “tend to be miniatures of the curriculum at massive research institutions.” She’s aimed to focus Sweet Briar on the things it can do best. It’s one of only two women’s colleges with an engineering program, for instance. And its massive 3,250-acre campus makes it ideal for environmental studies. The alumnae drive to save Sweet Briar was a heartwarming success story; its turnaround since then is just as dramatic.