I will be covering a number of aspects of Sweet Briar College’s closing in this blog space. It’s a long and complicated story, and I will try to break it down into digestible pieces. This first piece has to do with enrollment.
In explaining Sweet Briar’s closure, the administration cited “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.” This led to a number of articles with statements like the following: “The financial troubles and declining enrollment at Sweet Briar in recent years have once again raised the question: Are women’s colleges a relic of the past? ”
Let’s take a look at what’s really been happening with enrollment, at Sweet Briar and at other colleges. Here, data were obtained at the IPEDS government site for statistics relevant to higher education. An exception is data from 2014-2015, where numbers were obtained through Sweet Briar documents.
Enrollment: Sweet Briar College
Figure 1. Enrollment at Sweet Briar College, using 3 common measures. Full Time Degree Seeking Undergraduates is the sum of freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Full Time Equivalent takes into account part-time students and those from other institutions studying abroad in Sweet Briar programs. First Year Full Time Degree Seeking is number of incoming freshman.
Figure 1 shows the three main measures of enrollment for Sweet Briar College. Each measure provides slightly different information. Let’s start with the gray line, at the bottom. This line represents First Year Full Time Undergraduate Degree Seeking enrollment. This is another name for the number of incoming freshman. It is the most current measure, as the others include the number of students recruited in the previous years. Although it’s true that 2014-2015 had lower enrollment than previous years, it is hard to look at the line and see any systematic decline in enrollment. Overall, it looks like a very gradually trending upward slope from 1990 to the present. Indeed, that is what the best fitting trendline (dotted gray line) shows – a positive slope since 1990.
Above the gray line is the blue line representing the total number of Full Time Degree Seeking Undergraduates. When people ask how many students are at Sweet Briar, this is the number they are probably interested in. It is simply the sum of the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Although there is a drop in enrollment from the peak in 2008, it is once again difficult to see any systematic decline. If anything, it appears there has been a gradual increase since 1990, a notion supported by a positive slope to the best fitting trendline (dotted blue line). It is in this context that Sweet Briar College’s lawyer’s comment about enrollment is particularly audacious: “Sweet Briar needs to have 800 students enrolled to be sustainable but had just 532 students at the beginning of the current semester when the board voted to close.” If 800 students were really needed, that number should be applied at the beginning of the fall semester, before a number of first years leave (first year retention is a sector-typical 75%, and many leave between the first and second semesters), but the 532 number is based on Spring enrollment. Minor trickery. The second issue is the 800 number. Sweet Briar hasn’t been anywhere near 800 in 25 years. Maybe it’s a good goal to have, but how realistic of a goal is it when no significant changes are made to achieve it except for losing key personnel? No one ever took seriously that number because it was not serious. And Sweet Briar has done just fine without anywhere near that number.
Above the blue line is the orange line representing Full Time Equivalent Enrollment (FTE). This measure puts together full time, part time, and other forms of enrollment (we’ll get to that) to come up with a single number of “full time equivalent” students. For example, if 5 students each took one class in a semester, that might be equivalent to a single FTE student.
FTE is an important measure of enrollment because gross tuition revenue is generated by multiplying the number of FTE students by tuition. Net tuition revenue is gross revenue minus institutional, federal, and state aid. This enrollment measure is perhaps the best measure for comparing schools with different business models, such as those with mostly full time students and those with mostly part time or distance learning students who are more likely to pay for courses as they go. By this measure of enrollment, Sweet Briar has shown a decrease over the last 5 years, but from 2000-2014, this number has not shown a systematic decrease. Indeed, the best fitting trendline for this measure of enrollment (dotted brown line) also has a positive slope.
It is hard to look at Figure 1 and see where there is evidence for a systematic decline in enrollment. This is especially the case if one removes the most recent data points, from 2014-2015 – a year where there was no dedicated Dean of Enrollment. Even with those points included, the trendlines spanning back 25 years are moving in the positive direction for all measures of enrollment.
Enrollment: General Landscape
Figure 2 shows Sweet Briar’s freshman enrollment against six comparison groups. The blue lines represent 4 year private non-profit institutions (light blue = those institutions with less than 1000 students). The green lines represent the Annapolis Group of liberal arts colleges of which Sweet Briar is a part (light green = those institutions with less than 1000 students). The black/gray lines represent women’s colleges (gray = those women’s colleges with between 400-800 full time students). Overall, there is very little reason to think the enrollment landscape is deteriorating. The only line that appears to show any systematic decline from 1990 – 2013 is the one representing the group of small private 4 year non-profit colleges. This is a large and diverse group, and this decline might make sense after discussion of FTE enrollment. Enrollment at women’s colleges is stable, as is enrollment among the smaller Annapolis group colleges. Enrollment at private 4 year colleges, Annapolis Group colleges, and Sweet Briar appears to be increasing.
Figure 3 shows the same comparison groups but for full time undergraduate degree seeking students (total enrollment). The pattern is the same as in Figure 2. The very recent drop in total enrollment at women’s colleges does not obscure a long-term trend favorable to women’s colleges.
Figure 3. Number of freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Sweet Briar and in a number of comparison groups. IPEDS data for 2000 do not exist and for 2001 have not been plotted because of problems with the data set.
Figure 4 shows the same comparison groups but for full time equivalent (FTE) students. This one diverges slightly from the previous Figures 2-3. Small private colleges look to be doing better than with other measures, perhaps because some of these schools are increasing the number of part-time and distant learning students that they serve. It also appears that among women’s colleges, the numbers have been falling a bit over the last 4-5 years. This trend has only been occurring for a brief period, and the landscape is still better than it was 15 years ago.
Overall, the landscape in which Sweet Briar is a part is far from deteriorating, and there is more reason for optimism than pessimism. There are certainly no enrollment trends that can explain why Sweet Briar needed to close. Yet, declining enrollment continues to be cited as a primary reason for closing.
Consider, for example, a recent 4/10/2015 report by Moody’s that was prominently cited by Sweet Briar College’s lawyers at the 4/15/2015 injunction hearing. In part, it says, “With operating revenues of just $27 million, Sweet Briar had limited flexibility to adjust to its multi-year decline in enrollment.” Ignoring the fact that Sweet Briar did have the flexibility to hire a Dean of Enrollment – if only they thought the most important position for recruiting students and generating revenue was important enough to be filled by an expert – the statement about declining enrollment is odd because there has been not systematic decline in enrollment. Yet, they continue, “From 2008 to 2014, enrollment fell by 15%, to 681 students. Even though applications rose, consistent with broader industry trends, a declining yield on accepted students further indicated waning interest.” This statement was echoed in a US News article: “Despite efforts to increase enrollment, the school saw a roughly 8 percent drop between the 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 school years, according to data reported by Inside Higher Ed. While the number of applications increased dramatically for a school of less than 1,000 students, as did the discount rate offered to students, the number of students who chose to attend the school continued to fall .” This decline in enrollment was also cited by the Washington Post: “At Sweet Briar, enrollment dropped from 760 to 700 this academic year.”
There is enough wrong with these statements that it will take several blogs to unpack it all. But let me mention that the main reason for a rise in applications along with a decline in yield is that the common application system has led to students applying to many more colleges. Obviously, that will increase applications and reduce yield, something mentioned by neither Moody’s nor US News – nor anyone, really. However, the part of these statements that is most problematic pertain to the 15% (or 8%) drop in enrollment. It certainly does not look like there has been such a drastic drop in enrollment (see Figure 1) – so what’s going on? Let’s look at the graph in the Moody’s report:
Well, that certainly looks dire, judging from the plummet in enrollment and yield. But, wait, look at the y-axis scale. They have used the cheap marketing trick of adjusting the scale to maximize differences!
Figure 6 shows the same Sweet Briar data, but graphed as in Figure 1.
There is no evidence of a decline in the number of full time degree seeking undergraduates, nor in first year enrollment. On the other hand, there does appear to be a modest decrease in FTE over the last 5 years. It looks exaggerated in the Moody’s graph because they manipulated the y-axis scale to maximize observable differences. They also picked one of the few regions on any of the enrollment graphs to show a consistent decline. But there is something else, too.
Although FTE is often a good measure of enrollment, it is not for Sweet Briar. At Sweet Briar, unlike most other schools, the majority of FTE students are those students participating in Sweet Briar’s Junior Year in France or Junior in Spain study abroad programs. These aren’t Sweet Briar students, really – at least the vast majority of them are not. They are students from other schools participating in Sweet Briar’s study abroad programs. Don’t they still pay tuition? Well, yes, but Sweet Briar makes far less money from these students than from the more typical degree seeking undergraduates. Sweet Briar gets about $3500 net revenue from each student participating in JYF or JYS for a full year. This is what Sweet Briar would net from a degree-seeking student who pays room and board but does not pay any tuition at all. In other words, each JYF/JYS student is not equal to a full time degree seeking student, even though that is what this measure is supposed to do: financially equate different kinds of students. For this reason, FTE is the least informative measure of enrollment at Sweet Briar.
What is responsible for the decline in the number of FTE students at Sweet Briar over the last 5 years? Figure 7 shows the difference between FTE and total full time degree seeking students. There are a few part time students included in the FTE numbers, but that difference between FTE and full time degree seeking enrollment mostly results from the JYF/JYS students being included in the FTE count. It’s clear there was a big and persistent decline in these students between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. Indeed, the overall decline in number of FTE students at Sweet Briar over the past 5 years appears to be mostly due to this drop in JYF and JYS students. But a drop of 60 JYF/JYS students only costs the college around $200,000. A drop of 60 full time degree seeking students would cost the college a million dollars more than that. And, yes, I used the same sort of trickery with scaling of the y-axis as did Moody’s.
Figure 7. Difference between FTE and full time degree seeking undergraduates at Sweet Briar is largely due to Junior Year in France and Spain students from other institutions. The decline in these students between 2012 and 2013 is largely to blame for the decline in FTE over the 5 year span. But these students bring in much less revenue than a full time degree seeking student.
So why was there a drop in JYF/JYS enrollment? This is not entirely clear, but it should not be surprising, either. In 2013, Sweet Briar decided that it could do without separate directors for the France and Spain programs. An attempt was made to find a single person to run both JYF and JYS, but this ended in a failed job search. It turns out it is non-trivial to find someone who knows enough about both France and Spain. Eventually, the outgoing JYF director found a competent interim person, but it seems very likely that this transition led to the enrollment decreases. Overall, it looks like yet another avoidable personnel issue and another example of being cheap costing more than it saved. It also appears that Moody’s presented enrollment data in a way that could not have been more misleading without lying outright.
One final quote relating to enrollment:
“The Washington Post analyzed fall 2013 enrollment data for more than 80 colleges and universities in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. More than half had fewer students in fall 2013 than they did the previous year. Several had significant declines over three years. The analysis encompassed four-year schools in the public and private-nonprofit sectors. Numbers reflect total enrollment, including full-time, part-time, graduate and undergraduate students.”
A question: If the number of graduating high school seniors declined between 2012 and 2013 (which it did), wouldn’t we expect more than half of colleges to have fewer students in 2013 than in 2012? Of course we would. It would be strange if that were not the case. And the idea that several had significant 3 year declines is also exactly in line with what is expected. Individual schools have individual strategies. Some work, and some do not. Well run schools may occasionally choose a poor strategy, but they will change course when that becomes clear. Sweet Briar does not appear to have been a well run college.
Returning to the beginning, what does all this mean for the administration’s statement that cited “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? ” By restricting the statement to the tiny set of small, rural, private, liberal arts women’s colleges, they are saying very little more than “the declining number of students choosing to attend Sweet Briar College.” But there is no meaningful decline in enrollment, at Sweet Briar College, among women’s colleges, or at other peer liberal arts colleges. Instead, the opposite appears to be true. Since at least 1990, in other comparable colleges and at Sweet Briar, enrollment has gradually increased. The reporting to the contrary by a number of media outlets as well as a respected financial rating agency (Moody’s) is disturbing.