On March 4, Sweet Briar College announced that it would be closing permanently at the end of the 2014-15 academic year. The board of directors of the small Virginia women’s college cited “insurmountable financial obstacles” as the reason for the closure. The decision was met with great opposition from students and alumni, who have since started the Save Sweet Briar campaign to “ensur[e] the continued operation and sustainability of Sweet Briar College for future generations of women.”
As many have noted, Sweet Briar’s closing is not an isolated incident; rather, it is a symptom of a larger problem within the college industry. As literally every student in America knows, college costs a lot of money, and it’s only getting more expensive. The average student loan debt for the Class of 2013 approaches $30,000. This rocketing price of secondary education is not sustainable, and it was likely a major contributor to Sweet Briar’s financial failures.
Following Sweet Briar’s announcement, billionaire investor Mark Cuban commented on this situation, tweeting, “This is just the beginning of a college implosion.” He remarked that the rising cost of tuition will soon cause the benefits of attending college to be outweighed by the burden of student loan debt, and that we will witness the bursting of the “student loan bubble.” To him, Sweet Briar’s closing is the beginning of a change that “can’t happen fast enough.”
I understand the logic of Cuban’s argument. It is unfair to ask students to take on massive amounts of debt at such a young age, in order to get a degree that is essentially imperative in today’s job market. College is a necessity priced as a luxury. Something has to change in the way we think about secondary education.
Still, for Cuban to practically celebrate the closing of this 115-year-old institution is horrifying to me. He and others with similar opinions seem to look at this situation from a purely pragmatic perspective: the college ceased to be economically viable, so it should close. A college, however, is not just a business. It is a community, a learning environment, and a home. It is where people discover their identities, find their passions, and foster their world outlooks. It has massive, immeasurable significance to many. I cannot even imagine how I would feel if my college announced that it was closing. I would be like losing my family.
If a change must be made to the college system, it cannot involve devaluing institutions of higher learning. It is imperative that we recognize the personal and cultural value of such institutions, and that we work to protect them if and when the system does change. In particular, we must work to preserve liberal arts colleges, and colleges targeted specifically towards women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. No matter how drastically the college landscape changes, there must places where people can receive a broad, unrestricted education in a safe, fair, and comfortable environment. By focusing only on the financial component of college, we risk losing sight of that.
At the very, very least—if some closures are inevitable—colleges must handle these announcements better than Sweet Briar. This announcement was made far too late into the academic year. Most colleges had stopped accepting transfer applications by early March, so Sweet Briar underclassmen’s choices are extremely limited. If colleges are going to close, they have to make an effort to support and encourage students who are already going through such a distressing experiences.
But looking at the bigger picture, how can we effectively deal with this problem of the oncoming “college implosion”? I will be honest: I don’t know. I am a 19-year-old college freshman, and I am not equipped to construct a plan that addresses these concerns. However, I feel that the only way I may ever be able to find practical, economical, and ethical solutions to problems like these is through gaining the knowledge, perspective, and experiences that my liberal arts college offers me. What I know for sure is that education is among the most important tools we have as humans, and institutions whose chief aim is to educate must be maintained and venerated.