How Do I Know When A College Is Financially Viable? Don’t Some Colleges Go Under?

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College do experience financial distress, and the possibility is good that some of those that have difficulty in managing a steady tuition income stream will find it difficult to keep every program and every facility up and running.

There was quite a splash in the news this winter as Sweet Briar College, a well-established college for women, announced that it would close its doors at the end of the current school year. At the same time, Virginia Intermont College, a smaller and less well-known college, also announced its demise. Both Sweet Briar and Virginia Intermont are/were colleges with outstanding and competitive equestrian programs.

The Sweet Briar story is actually a bit more complicated than some in that Sweet Briar actually still had a fairly healthy endowment; the college not only operates a competitive riding program, but presents an expansive set of equestrian facilities, and has long attracted women who love to ride. It happens that many of the women in that population come from families that are well heeled, and over the years, generous graduates and families donated a considerable sum of money to Sweet Briar’s endowment.

The more than eighty-five million dollars in Sweet Briar’s endowment, however, had been donated for specific purposes, none of which was the daily operation of the plant. That being the case, the college could not access its holdings in order to operate he plant and programs. Dedicated alumnae and friends of the college have donated millions to keep the college afloat, and the courts have made some of the endowment available for the operation of the college.

Enrollment, however, remains shaky. The number of single sex colleges has fallen dramatically in the last forty years – fewer than fifty remain of the more than four hundred colleges for women in the Women’s College Coalition. Recruitment internationally may boot numbers, and the use of the beautiful campus as a conference site will probably bring income. There is no doubt that the hallowed halls and lovely traditions that were part of the Sweet Briar experience will be threatened by the financial reversal.

Endowment and endowment per student are the two most salient pieces of information a prospective family will need. There are excellent sources for this information, the most accessible provided by the National center for Educational Statistics. College Navigator ( is an excellent source of information about current enrollment, tuition cost, financial holdings, and admissions statistics. You can search broadly, or enter the name of a particular institution to get specific results.

Colleges and universities publish a great deal of information, but if you want the most current “vibe”, access recent editions of the college’s newspaper. If programs and opportunities are disappearing, students will respond quickly and at full volume. You may find out much more than you wanted to know about college life, but all information is useful.



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