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Friday, March 06, 2015

The Closing of Sweet Briar and How Much College Costs

While I didn't always understand Sweet Briar, I thought that there were enough people out there -- particularly Southerners with a particular view of the world -- who would keep it going forever.  A scan, however, of the Dow Jones 30 say fifty years ago reveals how much the world can change -- companies go bankrupt, companies get acquired, companies get smaller, and others emerge.  I do not know enough to know what prompted such a sudden announcement that Sweet Briar College would be closing (and quickly), because typically the indicators turn bright red for a troubled entity long before such an announcement -- and perhaps early enough where had the right decisions been made the institution wouldn't be faced with its closure. 

Mark Cuban has commented publicly, lamenting how expensive colleges have gotten and how much debt people are taking to go to college.  That's a problem for our society, because debt can do funny things to young people, including making them less confident about their futures and more willing to put off key decisions that traditionally have been at the foundation of a good society -- such as getting married, having children and buying homes that they can afford.  Demographics can play a huge part in the health of a nation (look at Japan, which is getting very old very fast) and in its outlook toward war (studies have shown that the more male-dominated a population is, the more willing it has been to go to war).  And when you look to Japan, you can look to it at a time when its economy was overheating and generating so much cash that the Japanese were investing everywhere.

Except that there was one problem -- that success created such a housing bubble at one point that people couldn't afford to buy houses.  They would take out 99-year mortgages, which meant that they would essentially be renting forever.  For while the Japanese have helped advanced technology, they have not found the Fountain of Youth just yet.  So what happened -- in all likelihood -- was that the subsequent generations saw the futility of trying to get ahead in Japan.  They didn't marry, they didn't procreate to the extent that their parents did, and now their economy has been suffering.

Now let's look at the United States, where brand envy can compel parents to pressure their kids to work exceedingly hard before they are 18 so that they can "get into the best college possible" because "we all know that those who go to the best colleges make the most money," and, further, they can be pressuring them into certain types of majors, again, the technical, business and scientific types that again "guarantee the most satisfaction because those graduates make the most money." 

But have all of those sayings been tested in an ironclad fashion?  Do those people live the longest, are they the happiest and do they turn out the most successful kids?  Do they make so much money that they can pay off their educational debts the most quickly?  And what happens to a society where liberal arts majors are dissed because solving a math problem right now can be more sexy than taking a philosophy course on leadership that might create a career for a young person where they can inspire society in a unique way? 

I wrestle with all these questions, believe that college is too expensive, that it should be cheaper, that community colleges should be strengthened, as should the curricula for eleventh and twelfth grades, that not all good jobs need four years of post-high school education (at least not right away), that people should negotiate the best deal that they can get and send their kids to that college, that at some point fairly quickly it's what you can do and not where you went to school that matters, and that parental snootery and pressure can compel kids to do things that go against the grain.  A putative writer needs nurturing from her parents and friends, not snide comments about "you cannot make a living doing that."  Those latter comments might ultimately prove true for many, but for the truly committed they are such a downer.  Because at the end of the day, a good writer in a nurturing environment could have a very satisfying life and have time to enjoy that life.  A so-so engineer whose parents get to brag daily with their car magnet and who works sixty-hour weeks to please difficult bosses while working on deadlines and who is trapped with all his debt might not lead as envious a life as the credential on the resume might suggest.

In other words, there are many ways for society to address this issue and many ways for students and parents to deal with it as well.  Some colleges will thrive, some will muddle through, and some will become extinct.  Those who excel will be akin to my favorite wine store, which is cooled to the temperature of a wine cellar and finds great values from niche vineyards, opting not to compete with the expensive rare wine dealers or the chain volume sellers.  That Darwinism -- and the aid that might accompany it -- will be interesting to watch. 

Parents and students must demand more, too.  The biggest schools have to offer "mini schools" within them so that they can prepare kids to read for content, write succinctly, make presentations and create and not just regurgitate.  They must not assuage themselves that big football weekends, a Greek life and lots of parties are as useful as they suggest -- kids need to develop.  By the same token, at the other end of the spectrum, we are not stamping out future engineers for IBM or Google without, hopefully, getting them to think broadly about what a good society looks like, as opposed to one where they can buy their first 3 series BMW in their twenties and buy $100 bottles of wine. 

It's a hard world out there, and something that none of us thought would happen -- the demise of a once proud, once elite liberal arts college -- happened.  Perhaps Sweet Briar became extinct because of fiscal mismanagement, because the brand became old and tired (and leadership failed to go the route of Tiffany and reinvent itself away from the image that only grandmothers shopped there), because the brand was all-women, because the brand was Southern, all women and pink and green.  Or perhaps because it was all that and viewed not as a serious player for developing women leaders (a la Wellesley) but as a finishing school, albeit a good one. 

The challenge for educators is to keep their schools robust, make them as diverse as possible, and to keep them innovating and relevant, as well as cost-effective (imagine Harvard offering a two-year A.A. program!).  The challenge for our society is to think broadly about our best possibilities and help drive ourselves and our children toward them, all the while demanding good value, good values and a cost-effective education.

And one which would include a course on French literature, Latin American history and the philosophy of leadership every now and then.  Accounting and engineering are noble professions, but they fit within a broader society, as do art and music and every other profession. 

It's sad to see an institution close its doors, but the lesson in Sweet Briar is a) institutions need to innovate and keep innovating and b) the education bubble that Mark Cuban warns of should be taken seriously.  At some point, as with "little boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tack" and with tulip bulbs in Holland about 500 years ago, someone will yell, "Sell!"  And then the selloff will continue for a while until people re-set the market, get their heads straight again.

A college education is a wonderful thing.

At the right price.


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