When colleges bounce back from the brink

Antioch College this past spring graduated its first class—of 21 students—after having been closed from 2008 to 2011

Your school has been rescued—now what? How do you restore students’ and parents’ faith in your revived institution?

Two colleges that have recently bounced back from the brink are Antioch in Ohio and Sweet Briar in Virginia. While Sweet Briar has only just embarked on the road to revival, Antioch College this past spring graduated its first class—of 21 students—after having been closed from 2008 to 2011. The year it closed, there were 119 graduates.

“We realized early on that the first classes we brought in were going to set the tone both culturally and academically for the institution,” says Micah Canal, Antioch’s dean of admissions. His team sought the most academically capable students and those with grit. “They were going to be the students who were going to help rebuild the college,” he says.

Antioch offered full-scholarship tuition to the first class of students after reopening. And the college has recommitted itself to a curriculum that requires students to spend four semesters working full-time in a field related to their studies.

“When you close, your brand takes a big hit— rebuilding confidence takes time and a lot of money,” Canal says. “You can’t rely on student-derived revenues to be anywhere near what they were preclosure until you rebuild trust.”

Sweet Briar had about 530 students when the women’s institution announced impending closure this spring. About 100 of those women graduated, and, as of mid-July, the college had already enrolled nearly 300 new and returning students.

“It’s very energetic and optimistic around here right now,” says Steven Nape, Sweet Briar’s interim chief enrollment officer, adding that numbers “will certainly increase by fall. We’re going to have students in each of the four classes.”

Sweet Briar found new life in a June court settlement that allowed the college to combine a $12 million donation from the alumni group, Saving Sweet Briar, with $16 million from its endowment. Saving Sweet Briar says it has pledges to help continue funding the college in future years.

Sweet Briar’s help from peers

Three institutions that were popular transfer choices for Sweet Briar College students were Agnes Scott College in Georgia, and Virginia schools Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College. Now that Sweet Briar isn’t shuttering, each of those schools has offered enrollment refunds for the transfers who want to go back.

Many students returned without hesitation, but other women and their families needed reassurance about the college’s prospects before deciding to attend, Nape says. “My answer starts at the very top—with the senior leadership. The new board has been constituted, and if you look at its composition, it’s first rate.”

Members include past college presidents; the mayor of Columbus, Georgia; successful business-people; and a former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. New President Phillip Stone has a record of increasing enrollment at previous institutions with smaller endowments than Sweet Briar’s.

The enthusiasm of returning students helps. “The students coming back love Sweet Briar College and that’s why they’re coming back,” he says. “I have great faith that the college is going to prevail and will be here for years.”

Update: Sweet Briar says its new administration has made progress during its first 30 days

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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