Media Not Asking Right Question on Sweet Briar College Closure

There are a lot of people who get their knickers in a twist over the announcement of a college closing. Teeth are gnashed. Hackles are raised. Hands are wrung. Danders are gotten up. Tears are shed.

This is because, for many people, the college that they attended shaped their lives at a time when they were just dipping their proverbial toes into the river of adulthood. And many of those attribute — I would suggest, wrongly — their very being having changed directly because of their college.

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Sweet Briar College near Lynchburg, Virginia announced this week that it would cease operations in August 2015.

I say wrongly because what actually happens is that they grew up. They became adults. The college experience was happening around that change. And humans tend to need something tangible to hang that type of change on. Agree or disagree; whatever.

My life, too, was fundamentally transformed during my college years, but if my college announced it was closing tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Meanwhile, over in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia — up the road from the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina where I went to college — lots of tears are being shed over the closing of Sweet Briar College, which was announced earlier this week.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the size of Sweet Briar’s endowment, the role of small, rural, liberal arts colleges, the role of single-sex colleges (Sweet Briar is a women’s college) and the fact that the president of the institution noted that the place was 30 miles from a Starbucks. Did any or all of this matter or in some way effect the decision to close?

The question that has been raised is if a college, even one with declining enrollment, has approximately $85 million in its endowment, how can it plead poverty and shut down because of financial exigency?

Well, media watchers, why hasn’t anyone asked this question: “How much debt do you have?”

Boo-hoo about the closing all you want, folks, but you’ll never get the real answer unless you ask the right questions. Score one for critical thinking learned in a liberal arts environment. Ahem.

(For the record, Ry Rivard came close on Inside Higher Ed.)

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