The Shifting Landscape

You don’t have to be a follower of higher education-related news have read or heard all about the Board of Trustees’ decision to close historic Sweet Briar College at the end of their summer session this August.  The story and its follow up ripples have made media rounds nationwide because of the sudden way in which the decision was rendered and because of the fear circulating that such a fate might befall other colleges and universities, as well as students and families who are in the midst of their college search and decision-making process.

In fact, as soon as the announcement was made, a flurry of articles were published that ran the gamut of subjects, from financial data explaining the decision to close to discussion of the value of women’s colleges as a whole and questions about whether private college education is worth its ever-inflating cost.  A movement to #SaveSweetBriar has also begun online in the hopes that the rumors of the college’s demise have been greatly exaggerated and the latest story about Sweet Briar emerged in today’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  (You may read it here.)

Please bear in mind, readers, that if I had all of the answers to the questions floating out there right now about not only Sweet Briar’s closing, but about higher education, cost inflation, and institutional management in general, I’d bottle them and sell the product at an extreme mark up.  (I’d probably also stop blogging and move my dressage-loving self to Europe because possessing those answers would be very, very lucrative.)

But since I don’t have the answers (and doubt I ever will), all I can do is continue to keep my understanding of the higher education climate as current and relevant as possible in an effort to educate and inform my clients and colleagues.  It’s the task I’ve undertaken every day since I first opened my practice and the one that I will continue to perform between now and my (far off) retirement.

Meanwhile, I know that the Sweet Briar announcement has left many families feeling perhaps more anxious about the college search process than they previously have (and I don’t blame you).  Questions abound:  How can we prevent this tragedy from befalling our son or daughter as an enrolled college student?  Is there a way to identify a school in financial trouble and avoid it?  What questions should we ask?  What warning signs should we look for?

While there are no guarantees for anything in life (and we horsemen and women are probably more familiar with this idea than many, as horses like to prove this rule early and often), I advise families who might be concerned about some of the colleges they’re looking at to examine those schools not just for their academic and equestrian offerings and not just for the campus culture, but to also look at them by the numbers.

In particular, pay attention to:

  • The college’s total endowment.  In the simplest terms, the endowment is the college or university’s investment portfolio and the yields from it help fund the running of the campus.  A financially solid school only draws about 5 percent of its total asset value each year (which can be a fairly substantial number depending on the assets – check out an Ivy League school’s numbers if you want to be astounded).  Financially un-sound schools will draw more to off-set their debts – potentially dipping into the principle and leaving them on very unstable footing.
  • The college’s retention rate.  Though many schools now openly admit that it will take incoming freshman five or six years to earn a Bachelor’s degree (so the four-year graduation rate merits a close look when you first begin your search), it’s also vital to see how many students enroll at the school and then stay to graduate.  If a school has a low retention rate for students from first year to second or even from second to third, you have to ask why students don’t stay and what it will cost for your student to have to transfer one day (both financially and in terms of lost credits that may not transfer with him or her).
  • The size of the college’s alumni base.  The purpose of going to college is to earn an education that will lead to employability.  A school’s network of alumni can be an important part of helping a student to land a first (or even second or third) job after graduation.  Tied closely with a school’s retention rate (bullet point two), the size of the alumni base can tell you how successful the school has been at graduating its students and how many contacts your student will have to reach out to after graduation.  Keep in mind that the important number isn’t the total alumni base, but rather the alumni base relative to the size of the student body, however.  (After all, a school the size of Michigan State University is going to have a lot more alumni than tiny Emory and Henry College, but if both schools have produced graduates who are working at the top of their fields and have a widely scattered and successful alumni base, both can be considered successful in the students they’re producing.)

Numbers aren’t everything, of course, and you’ll need to do a lot more thorough investigation as part of your college search so that you understand your student’s different options, but it’s important work to undertake on the front end of the college-going journey so that surprises down the road can be avoided or (at the very least) mitigated.  And yes, it’s incredibly confusing and time-consuming to go through all of the steps required to retrieve the information, but it’s become an important part of the college-going process in the twenty-first century that I fear is here to stay.

(Overwhelmed?  I’m happy to help you navigate the waters or you can pick up a copy of my book to start the search on your own.)


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