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What Is A Good Strategy To Take To Help Resurrect A Failing College?

You’ve most likely heard the news that Sweet Briar College in Virginia, decided to close its doors last month. The current state of Sweet Briar’s existence, at the moment, is “up in the air”. The leaders of Sweet Briar College are finding it difficult to put some order to its next moves, and this is because a Judge in Bedford County, VA issued an order stating that the school can not sell, transfer, or dispose of its assets for six months. Attorneys representing Sweet Briar have asked for some exceptions, one in particular, granting permission to transfer the school’s Junior Year Abroad program to neighboring Hollins University. Protecting this program is important to the college. The Judge has approved the program, and now has the ability to relocate to Hollins, with the hopes that it could eventually move back to Sweet Briar if the school decides to stay open.

At the moment, Sweet Briar’s alumni are fighting hard to get a ruling that would prevent the school from closing, which could eventually make its way to the Virginia Supreme Court. Sweet Briar College isn’t the only school facing these challenges. For instance, Wilson College located in Chambersburg, PA, faced a similar issue back in 1979, when its trustees voted to close the school. That decision was reversed months later in court. Wilson College faced an immediate decline in enrollment offset by the creation of a coed adult degree program that stabilized enrollment for sometime. But the ADP enrollment peaked in the late 1980’s and the traditional women’s college enrollment never rebounded to its pre-1970’s levels causing significant financial strain in the last decade or so. These changes included men being able to attend the college and the undergraduate program, which caused some insult to some of Wilson’s alumnae.

Stevens Strategy President John Stevens, was Wilson College’s advisor during a 2012 internal study that ended with the college’s admitting male undergraduates, reducing tuition, increasing payment options and adding innovative academic programs. John mentioned in a recent Chronicle article that “Sweet Briar’s problems sound much like Wilson’s and that if Sweet Briar were to remain open, they would have to be pretty inventive to achieve sustainability. There are new ways to deliver programming, both on campus and at a distance, that could have a very positive impact on a women’s college’s enrollment, he says. Science programs have helped some women’s colleges go forward, he adds. But he also says his firm has worked with at least two other institutions besides Wilson — Rosemont College and Immaculata University — that have looked at declining interest in women’s colleges among high- school girls and decided to become coeducational.” The majority of women’s colleges with which Stevens Strategy has worked have remained single-sex.

In the fall of 2011, the Wilson College Board of Trustees recognized that the College must attain “financial sustainability and authorized the establishment of the Commission on shaping the future of Wilson College. President Mistick, appointed a cross-functional commission to review institutional data and market analysis data, said Wilson College.” In turn, Stevens Strategy was asked to research and implement three phases with feedback loops from all college constituents. The phases consist of the following:

Phase I – Data collection and analysis: Stevens Strategy, a higher education consulting firm, reviewed and considered over 46 data sources, both internal and external to Wilson College. Stevens Strategy also conducted a survey that was sent to current and prospective students and alumnae/i and collected current market data.

Phase II – Intensive work with a broadly representative cross-functional Wilson College team in an open and transparent process (including multiple open campus meetings with alumnae and students) to consider and ultimately recommend a new strategic direction for the college. The Wilson College Team made its final strategic recommendations on Nov. 12, 2012.

Phase III – President Mistick submitted final recommendations to the Wilson College Board of Trustees, Nov. 20, 2012.

The strategies that were implemented, helped shape where Wilson College stands today. We applied the principles of our focused strategic planning process to Wilson’s needs to enable institutional leadership to evaluate the environment, think strategically and make significant decisions about the future with confidence and alacrity. As it stands, Wilson College is “now on a path to fiscal health,” says President Barbara K. Mistick in a Chronicle article. She cautions that “you have to approach it with a very realistic – maybe almost a pessimistic – sense of, How to make this come back? You really have to deal with the underlying issues.”

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