Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains just north of Lynchburg, Virginia, Sweet Briar College opened its doors in 1906 with the mission of encouraging more women to seek higher education, though at the time few finished high school. In the years to follow, it joined Barnard, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley as among the distinguished women-only educational institutions in the United States.
But in 2015, Sweet Briar almost closed for good, with its administrators citing "insurmountable financial challenges." Students were sent home, their classes cancelled, and faculty were dismissed, with the property assuming an eerie emptiness while alumni and administrators tangled over the college's uncertain, and very ominous-looking future. After a formidable effort by students, faculty, and alumni to save the school, one that deserves a longer read, the college has come back from the financial brink, with a new strategy to cut tuition in order to refocus more on education and less on an elaborate menu of options and fees. Sweet Briar's modern overhaul is not just financial; last year Vanity Fair described its impressive ability to remain relevant in a post-feminism and increasingly gender-fluid era with a commitment to inclusivity.
In Forbes this week, Sweet Briar's new President Meredith Woo described discounted tuition rates as a vital part of a new admissions strategy, one that avoids giving students sticker shock by focusing on the core expenses of the education itself. This allows students to declutter the financial picture, as Woo describes many talented students avoid applying to, much less visiting, a school that seems out of their price range. Could this strategy, which challenges the notion that dollar amount directly correlates to educational value and experience, help turn around the steady decline in college enrollment?
It shows promise for Sweet Briar. Last year the little college that could celebrated a record number of applicants.