Sweet Briar College Is Closing, Prompting The Question: Are All-Women's Colleges Going The Way Of The Dinosaur?


Citing a lack of financial stability, Virginia-based all-female Sweet Briar College will close later this year, The Washington Post reported. In a statement on its website, the school's administrators said they made the decision to close in August, due to "insurmountable financial challenges." The school, which has about 700 students, was founded in 1901, and includes journalist Lee Cullum and actress Diana Muldaur among its alumna, according to U.S. News & World Report. Sweet Briar president James Jones said in the statement that there were two major factors which led to the financial situation that compelled the college's decision to close.

...the declining number of students choosing to attend small, rural, private liberal arts colleges and even fewer young women willing to consider a single-sex education, and the increase in the tuition discount rate that we have to extend to enroll each new class is financially unsustainable.

Sweet Briar's mission statement says the school "empowers and educates young women to build and reshape their world however their passions lead them." But it's among a growing number of all-female colleges that have had to rethink their mission and role in the 21st century.

According to the Women's College Coalition, in the 1960s there were more than 200 all-female colleges in the U.S. As of June 2014, that number had dropped below 50, according to a survey the coalition conducted. The survey, titled "The Truth About Women's Colleges" found that women's colleges have graduation rates in line with those of private co-ed schools, but tend to have slightly higher tuition rates. That difference is offset, however, by the size and number of financial aid packages that students at all-women's colleges receive, according to the study.

But a 2013 report by The Washington Post found that many smaller, niche schools, not just all-female colleges, were at greater risk of declines in enrollment, due in large part to more price-conscious would-be students.

For alumna and students at all-female colleges, the connection they feel to their educational setting can be strong. When Chatham University in Pittsburgh decided to admit male undergrads, many alumnae protested the action, saying it took away what made the college special, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Chatham, founded in 1869 as the Pennsylvania Female College, had seen a steep drop in enrollment that had prompted the change.

Although there might be fewer all-women's colleges in the U.S., those that remain are among the country's most prestigious schools, including Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley, The Washington Post story noted. Indeed, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a Wellesley alum.

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While the idea of an all-female college may seem antiquated to some, supporters of single-sex education say that such an environment can empower girls and young women who might otherwise feel intimidated in the classroom. But in an era of skyrocketing education costs and ballooning student loans, it's sad, but not surprising, that students are choosing more economical options, rather than specialized education experiences.

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