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Does Sweet Briar's Closing Signal the Fate of Other Small Colleges?

While many are surprised and saddened by the news of Virginia's Sweet Briar College deciding to close its doors at the end of the academic year, experts say other small institutions are struggling to stay afloat, too.

The announcement that the 700-student, all-women's college will fold represents a "canary in the coal mine," says Phil Trout, the president elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a college counselor at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota. "I could nominate two dozen colleges who could follow within a year or two," he says. 

Jeff Fuller, the director of student recruitment at the University of Houston and the current NACAC president, concurs:  "I believe this is the tip of the iceberg and others will close." 

Several small colleges are facing economic hardship and are trying to innovate in the midst of a competitive market, reports Slate. Another article in The Washington Post outlines Sweet Briar's financial challenges.

With a large endowment, the move to close the college, which was established in 1901 near Lynchburg, Va., is unprecedented, says Jim Jump, a NACAC past president and the academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher's School, an all-boys prep school in Richmond, Va. Other colleges are clearly struggling to stay in business, but there was nothing on the surface to suggest Sweet Briar was in immediate jeopardy.  Jump anticipates the decision was based on long-term projections and the sense that school was "fighting a losing battle" as interest in single-sex schools wane.

How can prospective students be fully guaranteed that they are signing on to "a winner" college? Trout suggests families consult with the College Navigator web site, operated by the federal government through the National Center for Education Statistics. While there is no easy way to assess a school's business model, the College Navigator shows that 78 percent of the enrolled students at Sweet Briar received scholarships and financial aid, and their net tuition price is just under $26,000. This means most were attending at a discounted rate, which could have meant less income, adding to the college's financial situation.

Fuller says students should ask questions about the plans for growth at a college and if students have a role in campus decisions.  Look for signs of transparency, deferred maintenance and and fiscal health on campus, experts advise.

Some of the smallest schools may find it challenging to compete, but many that are over 1,500 remain strong and Jump maintains it's too early to say Sweet Briar's move is part of a trend. "I think the small, liberal arts school is America's greatest contribution to education," he says. "They've done a wonderful job preparing graduates for citizenship and leadership...I don't think this is the death knell for liberal arts colleges."

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