After the shocking announcement last March that Sweet Briar College, a women’s college in Sweet Briar, Virginia, would be closing that spring, Scripps College made accommodations for any Sweet Briar students that might need a place to transfer for the 2015-2016 school year. However, those accommodations proved unnecessary. Following successful fundraising by Sweet Briar students and alumni this summer, the college announced in June 2015 that it would be able to stay open for at least another year.
On Jan. 26, 2016, Sweet Briar President Phil Stone delivered a state-of-the-college address in which he lay many lingering doubts to rest, affirming the health and security of the institution.
Through increased advertising by the Sweet Briar administration and alumni both in the United States and abroad, the number of applications to Sweet Briar this year has increased to a 50-year high, according to Stone's speech. While Stone was quick to add that he knows that increased applications do not always signal increased enrollment, he remains optimistic about the heightened interest.
According to Jennifer McManamay, the assistant director of media relations at Sweet Briar College, “Of those [applications], 85 percent applied through the College’s own process, not through the Common Application—a strong indicator of interest in Sweet Briar.”
The College appears to be doing better in other ways as well, with enrollment going up between the fall 2015 and spring 2016 semesters, and faculty garnering regional recognition.
Although Sweet Briar’s vitals are better than they have been in several years, some worry that Sweet Briar’s trials are a sign of things to come for women’s colleges in general, and question the continued relevance of the institutions.
Zehra Ashgar, a 2010 alumni of Sweet Briar College, wrote in an email to TSL that “Sweet Briar’s struggle to stay open may be partially indicative of problems on the horizon for women’s college as prospective students may find them less relevant than in the past based on real or perceived gains women have made in society, and private colleges become increasingly unaffordable.”
However, she also wrote, “Sweet Briar also had leadership problems, as well as difficulties attracting students due to its rural location, so it would be inaccurate to generalize from Sweet Briar's experience.”
Scripps’ interim president, Amy Marcus-Newhall, while sympathetic to Sweet Briar’s struggles, believes that women’s colleges are in no danger.
“Women’s colleges are uniquely positioned to combat gender stereotypes and encourage women to reach their full potential, no matter the field,” she wrote in an email to TSL. “Scripps and its women’s college counterparts can provide the opportunity for women to confidently develop leadership abilities and enjoy a supportive environment while they develop their intellects and talents through participation in a community of scholars; we often hear alumnae talk about how they ‘found their voice in a powerful way’ at Scripps.”
Annie Carroll SC ’17 agrees. She attended Sewanee University and Northwestern University, both co-ed institutions, before transferring to Scripps, which she says has fostered her confidence and leadership in a way that no co-ed institution could.
“To girls thinking of applying to women’s colleges now, I would say … Don’t go anywhere else,” Carroll said.
To Carroll, the kind of community that is fostered in a women’s college teaches girls “how the world should be.” She believes that there is something about the way women work together in groups that simply cannot be replicated at a co-ed college. If there are to be any changes to the women’s college as an institution, it should be increased inclusivity, Carroll and Ashgar agree.
“I hope we'll see a broader reevaluation of the term ‘women's college’ to more of a ‘womxn's college,’ where trans and gender-nonconfoming persons are systematically welcome,” Ashgar wrote in an email to TSL. “I think this will be necessary for women's colleges to stay relevant at a time when ideas about gender are rapidly changing, and the existence of new forms of gender-based oppressions are entering our collective consciousness. I think this change will be in line with the original ideas of the women's college as a place where non cis hetero white men could learn.”