Sweet Briar College is revamping its curriculum and cutting its price as the school rebounds from its potential closing in 2015.
“Sweet Briar is in a very unique position to make these big, sweeping changes,” said college President Meredith Woo, who took office in May and will be inaugurated this month. “We’re building from the point of almost zero.”
The changes, highlighted by the termination of academic departments, a different semester schedule and a steep price cut, come amid continued challenges for the school, including shrinking enrollment and a dwindling endowment.
Sweet Briar has about 300 students this fall, less than half of what it had the year of the vote to close the school. Sweet Briar’s endowment, at the end of June, was valued at about $74 million, compared with the $85 million valuation at the time of the vote, according to Inside Higher Ed.
The college, which was established in 1901, was almost shut down in 2015 after the college’s board of directors unanimously voted to close it because of financial challenges. The vote was met with backlash from alumni, students and various members of the Sweet Briar community.
Faculty members passed a resolution opposing the vote, and about 50 faculty members sued, the first of three lawsuits against the college. In June 2015, about two months before the school was scheduled to close, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office announced an agreement to keep the college open for 2015-16.
Saving Sweet Briar, a nonprofit set up to raise money to keep the school open, contributed more than $12 million to help cover 2015-16 expenses.
Woo is the first permanent president the college has had since that situation.
The curriculum change, which was led by a faculty task force over the course of three months, focuses the women-only school’s core on women’s leadership with students taking 10 to 12 “integrated courses” that “refocus Sweet Briar’s general education requirements on its greatest strength: developing ‘women of consequence.’”
It also abolishes academic departments in favor of three interdisciplinary “centers of excellence,” which Woo said will eliminate levels of bureaucracy by getting rid of the administrative units. The academic calendar at Sweet Briar is moving from 15-week semesters to a 3-12-12-3 schedule with the goal of increasing experiential learning opportunities.
The changes, intended for the 2018-19 academic year, are accompanied by a 32 percent price reduction from the 2017-18 sticker price of $50,055. Tuition, room, board and fees for the college in Amherst County near Lynchburg will total $34,000 — $21,000 for tuition and fees, $7,000 for room and $6,000 for board.
“We want to let the world know that excellent liberal arts education can be affordable,” Woo said in an interview.
A Sweet Briar spokeswoman said the cost reduction is an effort to be more transparent to prospective students. She added that most students’ cost of attendance is already discounted through scholarships and grants.
“We’re not asking less for a Sweet Briar education; we’re making the cost to students and their families transparent — and in so doing, we’re fixing a broken system,” said Jennifer McManamay, the spokeswoman.
Woo, a former dean at the University of Virginia, said she hopes revamping the curriculum will help attract attention. Woo expects enrollment to grow as a result of the curriculum change and through the price cut to tuition. She did not elaborate when asked about how the cuts to tuition and the shrinking endowment would affect the school’s finances.
“Women’s education is only beginning around the world,” she said. “This is a great time to be a women’s college.”