Home Online Education Access and Affordability Change is Hard but – if Needed – Change before it’s Too Late
Change is Hard but – if Needed – Change before it’s Too Late

Change is Hard but – if Needed – Change before it’s Too Late

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Sweet BriarLast week’s announcement that Sweet Briar College would close in August came as a shock to many. Some alumnae have organized a fundraising campaign to keep Sweet Briar alive and others are wondering why a college with an $84 million endowment and 700 students had to close while it still had cash in the bank. The board cited an unsustainable enrollment decline as one of the reasons. Reports indicate that Sweet Briar’s enrollment was slightly fewer than 700 students but that its discount rate (the percentage of tuition in merit scholarships used to attract students) had climbed from 49 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2013.

The timing of this announcement was no accident. Given declining enrollments and increasing discount rates, the board was likely monitoring the number of applicants for the fall and opted to close when February numbers did not meet a specific target. Tuition discounts have been attractive to institutions seeking to improve the quality of their student body by offering merit scholarships to students with credentials they might not normally attract. Unfortunately, what started out as a good idea can get carried to the extreme when institutions compete for the same students and the average discount rate for private colleges has exceeded 40 percent for years.

At an institution with an overall discount rate of 33 percent, the spectrum of institutional aid ranges from two out of every three students are full-pay and their tuition supports a full-scholarship student, to every student receives a 33 percent scholarship. Imagine the scenario with a discount rate of 62 percent, nearly the reverse of the preceding example. Instead of two full-pay students supporting one full-scholarship student, it’s one full-pay student supporting two full-scholarship students (the discount rate would have to be 66.6 percent for that to occur, but 62 percent is close enough).

College Navigator data for Sweet Briar indicates that 174 of the 176 freshmen matriculating in 2012-2013 received aid (99 percent) with an average award of $20,914. This data compares unfavorably to 78 percent of all undergraduates who received an average award of $20,048 that year. In addition, Sweet Briar accepted 84 percent of all applicants that year and only 26 percent enrolled. A decline in full-pay students with an increase in the average award meant that there was less cash from tuition to cover expenses. Assuming that trend continued or worsened the past two academic years (College Navigator data is two years behind), you can understand why the board said the situation was unsustainable.

The announcement and subsequent articles don’t yet report what options the board considered (going coed from single-sex, adding graduate or online programs, etc.). However, the outcome indicates that they thought all of those changes were not viable. I am an alumnus of a K-12 private school that changed from a boy’s military school with a majority boarding population to a coed prep school with less than 10 percent boarders. Those changes (military-to-civilian, single-sex to coed, seven-to five-day boarding) occurred over several years and were extremely difficult for the board to make given the institution’s century of tradition and alumni base. Today, the institution is thriving with an enrollment nearly double that from its last days as a single-sex boarding school.

By not making major changes such as going co-ed or adding graduate programs, the Sweet Briar board must have concluded that substantive change was impossible and opted for closure. Sweet Briar’s outcome is a good example for boards of other institutions with similar challenges. Change is hard, but if needed, change before it’s too late.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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