Here are two amazing facts about Sweet Briar College:
For the past two years, it hasn’t had an admissions director.
It also hasn’t mounted a formal fund-raising campaign.
Yet when the board voted to close the school, it cited dwindling enrollment and a shrinking endowment as the reasons. Does this make any sense?
Keep in mind some of the things we detailed in part one on Sunday: Sweet Briar had been losing money for years. For more than two decades, the board had been covering those losses by spending its endowment, which meant that its endowment was declining when the general idea of endowments is that they should grow, with schools living on the interest.
The stock market crash of 2008 sent the value of Sweet Briar’s then-$95.4 million endowment initially plummeting by one-third, down to the low $60 millions, before finally finishing the fiscal year down “only” 21.5 percent, to $74.9 million. A few years later, Wells Fargo cut off the school’s credit, forcing Sweet Briar to shell out at least $22 million to pay off some of its bonds, further debilitating the school’s finances.
In the wake of the crash, though, Sweet Briar, like other colleges, had a problem with another e-word: Enrollment. How to keep students coming back to pay tuition when the economy was bad.
Inside Higher Ed magazine reported at the time that many colleges decided to keep enrollment up by dipping into their endowments to cover some of the costs of tuition — in effect, a temporary subsidy to keep at least some revenue coming in.
Sweet Briar, though, perhaps because it was already worried about its endowment, did not do this. “The result: an enrollment drop, a budget deficit of nearly $1 million, and a new plan to save money,” the magazine reported.
Enrollment in fall 2009 was down “only” 45 students, but at a school as small as Sweet Briar, and with tuition as high as Sweet Briar’s, those missing 45 students meant a lot of lost revenue.
Business Insider magazine sums things up this way: “That was when the school probably knew it was in trouble.”
In 2010, Forbes magazine put Sweet Briar near the top of a list of colleges it said were facing financial problems. The school disputed that, saying “in five of the last six years Sweet Briar has increased enrollment, reduced the tuition discount rate and reduced the endowment spending rate.” The problem is, all those things were about to change, and change for the worse.
The next year, Wells Fargo pulled the school’s line of credit, forcing the school to pay off those bonds.
As the market recovered, so did Sweet Briar’s endowment, but the school was still spending some of it to covering operating losses, so its endowment today is basically the same as it was in 2010. For comparison purposes, the endowment at Hollins University has grown nearly 40 percent during that time.
So why not try to raise money? Capital campaigns in 1996 and 2006 had raised $200 million combined. In 2011, though, consultants told the board that Sweet Briar’s alumnae weren’t rich enough to support another major fund-raising campaign. Whether this is truly the case is surely one that will haunt Sweet Briar supporters.
From an anticipated 650 students in fall 2009, Sweet Briar’s enrollment slid to an actual 566 in fall 2012. Again, what seems a small number turns into a bigger one on the lost revenue side.
When the admissions director left in 2013, Sweet Briar did not mount a search for a replacement. Instead, those duties were assigned to the president’s chief of staff. A decade before, Louise Zingaro had spent seven months as interim head of admissions, and she had worked with the school’s consultants on how to get enrollment up. President Jim Jones calls her “an incredibly competent person.” Still, the fact remains: At a time when Sweet Briar was concerned about declining enrollment, it lacked a career admissions director. Would that have mattered? It’s hard to say.
Zingaro did dramatically increase applications: 936 for the current year, up 67 percent from four years ago, and more than at any time for which the school has records. The problem, though, is fewer and fewer of those applications resulted in actual students enrolling. Sweet Briar had hoped this year’s class would be big enough to generate $13.3 million in tuition and fees; instead, it generated only $7.7 million.
Jones has noted that the demographics of the student body have changed dramatically, and the school has had to reverse its earlier policy not to subsidize tuition — which means further spending from the endowment.
One measure of those changing demographics is the number of students receiving federal Pell grants for financial assistance. In 2006, fewer than 15 percent of Sweet Briar’s students received Pell grants; for the class that entered in the fall, that figure was up to 43 percent. However, the national average at private colleges is 39 percent, so in that context, Sweet Briar is really just becoming more “normal.” Hollins has been in the 40-percent range for longer, but has somehow adjusted its business model accordingly. Sweet Briar, for whatever reason, hasn’t been able to.
Meanwhile, Sweet Briar’s “discount rate” for tuition is now up to 62 percent, far higher than the national average. In effect, the school is spending its endowment just to keep students enrolled, and is still seeing enrollment go down.
Jones became president of Sweet Briar last summer. He put an hourglass on his conference table to visualize how fast he felt time was running out.
“By November we knew that the income projections for this fiscal year were going to be worse than they were projected to be, because of the class and because of the size of the financial aid that had to be given away to bring that class in here,” he told the Lynchburg News & Advance. The school’s expected to burn through another $11 million of its endowment in this fiscal year alone.
That means even though the college has reduced its debt by paying off bonds early, those remaining liabilities now exceed the portion of the endowment available for unrestricted use. No wonder that in November Standard & Poor’s downgraded its credit rating for Sweet Briar to “negative.”
For Jones, the sands had run out. Given a choice between struggling to save the school and struggling to save the assets, the board chose the latter — with the idea that after the bills are paid, whatever is left can be used to set up a foundation to give out scholarships.
That is essentially the dispute; can the school be saved and is it worth risking those assets to do it?
In hindsight, Sweet Briar should have done a lot of things differently — starting, probably, two decades ago.