After All but Closing, Sweet Briar Will Shift Curriculum and Pricing

September 06, 2017

Sweet Briar College
Sweet Briar College expects to enroll about 335 students this fall. Its leaders hope that a new pricing plan and a curricular revamp will help bring enrollment to a viable level.

Two years after alumnae filed a lawsuit and raised $12 million in a matter of weeks to keep the tiny institution from closing, Sweet Briar College’s faculty and its new president unveiled ambitious plans Wednesday morning to overhaul the curriculum, calendar, and pricing model. Their hope is to turn what has been a genteel women’s college with horses and lakes into a 21st-century liberal-arts institution that attracts young women by promising them leadership skills — and that appeals to their families by costing about the same as Virginia’s flagship public universities.

The curriculum changes, hammered out in just three months by the college’s faculty, will abolish traditional academic departments and instead align professors in three groups, one focusing on engineering, science, and technology, another on the environment and sustainability, and the third on creativity and the arts. A core curriculum highlighting leadership will include 10 to 12 "integrated courses" and be in place for 2018-19 academic year, and the college will drop some of its current majors. Accompanying the curricular changes will be a new calendar replacing two 15-week semesters with a three-week term, a pair of 12-week terms, and a final three-week term.

Meanwhile, the college will "reset" its prices by moving away from a steep sticker price and high discounts. The total for tuition, room and board, and fees will drop from over $50,000 in 2017-18 to $34,000 the following year — just about what an in-state student would pay at the University of Virginia.

Wednesday’s announcement answers, finally, a question that has nagged at many small-college observers since the summer of 2015, when Virginia’s attorney general brokered a deal ousting the college’s former Board of Directors and president and allowing it to remain open: What is Sweet Briar going to do differently to boost enrollment to a viable level? This fall the college expects to enroll about 335, including 81 first-year and 14 transfer students.

Photo by Aaron Mahler
Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College, says its recent struggles made it "really ripe for doing something bold and fundamental."
The answer comes just three months after the college’s new president, Meredith Woo, took over from Phillip C. Stone, who was hired two years ago by a new Board of Directors determined to keep Sweet Briar alive. Ms. Woo, a former dean of UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences, said in an interview Tuesday that while it is typically "very difficult to move the needle in a college setting because of inertia," Sweet Briar’s recent struggles made it "really ripe for doing something bold and fundamental."

"We now have a campus where everybody’s kind of united and ready to roll up their sleeves," she said. "Because we did this over the summer, it could not include 100 percent of the faculty, but the vast majority took part. It was actually a fairly joyful process — it was incredibly gratifying to work with a faculty eager for change."

‘This Is Not Rocket Science’

Unlike some other small colleges that have determined to make big changes — Agnes Scott College adopted a similar focus on leadership, while Wilson College was one of the earliest to try a tuition reset — Sweet Briar did not spend years talking over ideas with consultants and others. Ms. Woo said the college had done a lot of research on its needs and options in advance of the 2015 decision to close. "We’re not starting this from scratch," she said, adding: "This is not rocket science."

"We decided to double down on the liberal arts," while acknowledging that "the context in which learning takes place could be much more relevant and contemporary," she said. "It’s difficult to prepare students for the 21st century when you’re insisting on a curriculum that dates back to the medieval period."

Sweet Briar’s academic reorganization, she said, is based on three contemporary strengths: Its existing engineering program, believed to be one of just two at a women’s college; its 3,200-acre campus, ideal for environmental studies; and its proximity to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony that leases land from the college.

The new calendar, Ms. Woo said, will allow students to immerse themselves in internships, research, or study abroad, and the college will provide each student with up to $2,000 to spend on such pursuits. The calendar will also make it easier for subject experts to come to the campus to teach short courses.

As for the tuition reset, she said that Sweet Briar is currently "very affordable," thanks to big financial-aid awards, but that many families merely glance at the sticker price and rule the college out without giving it a second thought. "Our intention is to make it very transparent to American families that we are as affordable as some of the flagship public universities in the commonwealth."

The college will continue offering need-based aid, and will also continue a range of scholarships. But, Ms. Woo said, "the high-tuition, high-discount model is a model that’s completely broken, and nobody wants to jump ship unless everybody jumps ship. It should be far less confusing to everyone."

Lawrence Biemiller writes about a variety of usual and unusual higher-education topics. Reach him at