Single-sex, liberal arts colleges like Sweet Briar don't stand a chance

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Sweet Briar College announced Tuesday that it will shutter its doors in August due to insurmountable financial troubles, becoming the latest victim of a shifting higher education landscape that favors co-ed, professional training over single-sex liberal arts instruction.

The university will help students apply to other schools and transfer credits, but students and parents reacted with shock and dismay on the school's Facebook page at the announcement.

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"My daughter had finally found her niche, and made a good deal of friends here, and we were so happy with the school and proud to say she was a student at Sweet Briar," wrote a poster identifying as Aaron Woods. "This is like a kick in the teeth."

The college has provided a haven in the bucolic Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to young women seeking a liberal arts education for more than a century. But it has several factors working against it that have proven too difficult to overcome.

Single-sex education

Sweet Briar is a women's college and where single-sex universities were once a popular option, particularly among well-to-do families who could afford full tuition, the appeal has waned. According to the Women's College Coalition, there were more than 200 women's colleges 50 years ago. Today, there are around 40.

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Some, like Sweet Briar, simply shuttered. Others, like Chatham University, voted to admit men. But the university said in a statement that there were no "viable paths forward." James F. Jones, Jr., president of the college, told Inside Higher Ed that turning co-ed would require additional funding to essentially "buy males," adding that the school would rather use what funding remains to help current students transition to other schools.

Rural colleges

The campus grounds at Sweet Briar are beautiful, but they're also rural. Off-campus opportunities can be limited in rural settings, which can raise red flags with students. Cities like New York and Los Angeles have high concentrations of internships and job opportunities, according to job review site Glassdoor, whereas rural areas have just a few.

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"There are two key realities that we could not change: 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," Jones said in a statement.

In this economy, work experience and internships have become an increasingly important way to stand out as an applicant and students are looking for colleges that offer those opportunities. Sweet Briar is known for its equestrian programs, but there is a much more limited market than there was when the college opened more than a century ago.

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Liberal arts

Tuition at Sweet Briar is steep—just shy of $50,000 per year, including living expenses. And where there was once a robust market among well-off families for single-sex education, that market has dwindled, which forced the school to discount tuition to attract potential students. That path, university officials said Tuesday, is not sustainable.

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While the economy has rebounded somewhat since the 2008 recession, unemployment remains more than double the national average among young people, at around 12 percent for people under age 24, according to youth advocacy group Generation Progress. Where a broad liberal arts education was once widely regarded as a smart approach to higher education, there has been a recent shift toward more focused degrees, particularly in the science and engineering fields, where job opportunities are most plentiful, according to data from the Department of Education.

And private, four-year schools are the most likely to still be struggling financially post-recession, according to research from Vanderbilt University, which has forced some, like Virginia Intermont College, to close.

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Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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