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Is the end of Sweet Briar the end of college?

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Mar 10, 2015

“People entering academic fields have long taken the economics of higher education for granted, never asking where, exactly, the money comes from to support the sabbaticals and teaching loads that allow half their time to be spent on research. That kind of ignorance will be dangerous in the future.”                        –Kevin Carey

 

It’s almost uncanny how Sweet Briar College’s closure occurred on the same day that Kevin Carey released his book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. Carey’s vision of the future is the University of Everywhere, which is not a place or a single institution but a multitude of learning sources and pathways through which students pursue a “rational education” that alters fundamentally “the way our society creates knowledge and economic opportunity.”

In this placeless and limitless world of learning that harnesses the potential of technological innovation, Carey sees “cathedrals of learning” toppling like organisms going extinct. He cites HarvardX biology professor Robert Lue who explains that “higher education is an organism. Our environment is changing, so we need to evolve. We need to deconstrain, to redefine how our individual components relate to one another. Organisms go extinct when they cannot mutate.

The leaders of Sweet Briar knew that they could not afford to mutate despite their $85 million endowment. Many have criticized the move as a lack of imagination, will power, or effort on the part of the college’s leadership, but the President and Board understood all too acutely the near impossible challenge of innovating from within.

Sweet Briar didn’t fail because it’s a small liberal arts college. It didn’t collapse because it’s rural, isolated, or all-female with declining enrollments. What’s more insidious about the dissolution of this college is that in terms of delivering a postsecondary education, Sweet Briar was doing exactly what most every other institution is doing.

Under the auspices of a single brick-and-mortar institution, Sweet Briar was trying to deliver on three very different and conflicting value propositions. By trying to teach, engage in research, and provide a vibrant residential community for its students, the college had bundled together three very distinct value propositions around knowledge creation, knowledge proliferation, and preparation for life and careers.

Sweet Briar of course is not alone in this endeavor; most traditional institutions bundle the same three things together. The precise costs of producing these different parts of an education are therefore unknowable because they are interdependent and inseparable. Parsing costs and creating more efficiency are not even options. Even if a college were to realize that trying to be all things to all people is unsustainable, it would not be a simple task to transform or narrow focus onto a single, simpler value proposition.

Everything is bundled together into what Carey likes to call a “hybrid university,” and just like the newspaper industry, Carey projects that colleges will inevitably struggle to compete with upstart innovators and organizations that “take advantage of all those inefficiencies and drive the old business to extinction.”

Carey fills his book with examples of how innovators are already building high-quality immersive experiences where students come together to build projects or solve problems together. He foresees the undoing of hybrid universities by bootcamps, free online universities, or blended learning pathways built in concert with employers that lead directly to jobs at desirable companies.

When reading Carey’s work, we can anticipate that more places like Sweet Briar will lose out to these organizations that they’ve never even heard of. Whether or not they’re accredited, these sources of learning will serve as viable alternatives to a system that upholds the degree as the only and ultimate signal of success.

Indeed, Carey exposes colleges as inhabiting a luxury goods market in which they simply sell “signs and signals of success.” He contests directly the idea that this new wave of technology-enabled learning is inherently easier. Rather, he shares his own experience of taking a massive open online course (MOOC) in biology from MIT in order to show how unforgiving these learning experiences can be—without “any room to hide or slack off.”

The End of College will serve as a wake-up call especially for parents and students and catalyze them to become savvier shoppers of higher education. In the race to move up the college rankings, schools have started to look more and more like one another without necessarily delivering great outcomes. Only a select number of institutions might live up to their reputation, but for the rest—beyond those top 50 according to Carey—he suggests to families: “Spend your hard-earned money to pay for your or your child’s education, not someone else’s ambitions…. Don’t finance some other college’s dreams of joining that club.”

The President and Board of Sweet Briar could not persist in the arms race of rankings. And although some will simply dismiss the closure of Sweet Briar as a unique situation that has no relevance to the rest of academia and others may dismiss Carey’s new book as more disruption doom and gloom, it’s important to understand that both represent an important shift in the way we typically think about competition in higher education. In the future, institutions will not only have to continue competing with one another for students, but they will also have to compete with organizations they’ve never even heard of.

So, what will happen to the remaining 6,000 or so universities in the U.S.? Will they continue to stay afloat? Carey’s readers will easily be convinced that Sweet Briar is only the beginning.

 

Michelle R. Weise, PhD

Michelle is the executive director of Sandbox ColLABorative, the R&D lab of strategy and innovation at Southern New Hampshire University. Michelle’s work in fostering innovation is an extension of her prior work as the senior research fellow in higher education at the Christensen Institute.

  • “Sweet Briar didn’t fail because it’s a small liberal arts college. It didn’t collapse because it’s rural, isolated, or all-female with declining enrollments.”

    I’m not sure I accept this. I completely agree with you that disruptive innovation is shaking up higher education, and some schools will fall over as a result, but these factors shouldn’t be casually dismissed because they left Sweet Briar as especially wobbly. Or, put another way, Sweet Briar is not the canary in the coal mine, it’s the old slow wildebeest at the back of the herd.

    • Michelle R. Weise, PhD

      Point taken. Thanks for your comment. The point that I’m trying to make, however, is that many institutions will want to separate themselves from this particular instance and see Sweet Briar as anomalous and distinctive. They’ll attribute the collapse to the fact that it’s an all women’s college in an isolated region, but the complex orchestration of business models makes colleges more closely related than they’d like to believe.

  • Kevin

    SWEET BRIAR COLLEGE IS NOT CLOSED!!!! You just had a bunch of idiots trying to run it but they failed.