Women's colleges feel Sweet Briar's impact

Hollins President Nancy Oliver Gray (from left) with Savon Sampson and Ashlee Kneip Ligon at an alumnae event in Richmond.

RICHMOND — Hollins University expects to enroll its largest entering class in 22 years next fall.

You might call it the Sweet Briar bump.

The failed attempt to shut down Sweet Briar College last spring initially called into question the future of single-sex education.

But its rescue by devoted alumnae put a different kind of spotlight on women's colleges and showed the power of a student who has learned "to be sure of her voice and how to use it."

"I think you saw smart women in action," said Hollins President Nancy Oliver Gray. "It was a lesson in the relevance of women's college education in the 21st century."

While Hollins saw its enrollment rise, the numbers played out differently for Virginia's other women's college. Mary Baldwin College's enrollment dipped this academic year, although its numbers for next year are rebounding, with deposits up 12 percent over the previous year.

And Sweet Briar, which is to award diplomas to about 84 students Saturday morning, hasn't yet reached the enrollment target set for next year. As of May 1, 125 freshmen or new transfer students had paid deposits for next year.

Spokeswoman Jennifer McManamay said Sweet Briar still is working toward a goal of 200 new students.

"If we don't get there, we'll still have a strong freshman class and will continue building from there," she said in an email.

"To put it in perspective, it's about half the current student body and five times the number of first years that we enrolled in fall 2015."

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Hollins threw a lifeline to Sweet Briar students after the abrupt announcement last spring that the college was to close permanently. More than 200 applied to transfer, and 70 had paid deposits before a state-mediated agreement won a reprieve for the private college in Amherst County.

While 50 students chose to return to Sweet Briar, 20 remained at Hollins and helped to boost undergraduate enrollment at the university in Roanoke County to about 640 for this academic year.

For the next academic year, Hollins anticipates undergraduate enrollment of 685, with total enrollment of more than 800 including coed graduate programs.

The projection is based on 239 deposits received so far from new first-year traditional undergraduate students for fall, up from 196 deposits last year. It will be the largest entering class since 1994, when 270 students enrolled.

Gray, who was in Richmond last week for a meeting with about 100 alumnae at the Reynolds Gallery, said what happened at Sweet Briar was a testament to the importance of a women's-only environment.

"I actually think it strengthened our case," she said. "I think you have to have great respect for the Sweet Briar alumnae and how they came together to save their school."

They wouldn't have done that if they didn't have "deep passion and gratitude for their women's college education," Gray said.

"I can guarantee if we ran into something tough at Hollins, ouralumnae would rally together with equal if not greater strength."

Hollins is leveraging its alumnae base, she said, to provide one-on-one career preparation for students. Undergraduate alums total 692 in the Richmond area, and they have set up students with internships at places including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the House of Delegates.

"We can give our students not the old-boy network but the new-girl connections," Gray said.

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At Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, administrators also saw a link between enrollment and the Sweet Briar controversy.

Lois Williams, vice president for enrollment management, said multiple reasons likely were in play for the dip in numbers this academic year.

"I do think there was some connection with what happened at Sweet Briar calling into question women's colleges and their place," she said.

Enrollment in Mary Baldwin's Residential College for Women this year was 667, including four former Sweet Briar students.

The number was down from 761 the previous year, but total enrollment — including Mary Baldwin's coed programs — was 1,664 this year. Those programs include graduate degrees and a non-residential undergraduate adult degree program, which offers online and on-site courses at regional centers.

In those ways Mary Baldwin — which will become a university Aug. 31 as it marks its 175th anniversary — is not solely a traditional women's college.

In fact, during the Sweet Briar controversy, highered publications pointed to Mary Baldwin "as an example of how a women's college can develop a business model with diversified revenue streams that are a smart direction forward," said Crista Cabe, vice president for communication, marketing and public affairs.

That message apparently didn't reach prospective students who were hearing the news about the problems at Sweet Briar" and deciding to look elsewhere," she said.

"We don't have data on people who never contacted us in the first place," Cabe said, but she thinks that was "at least a part of what was going on."

Now visits to the campus have increased, as have applications to the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, a public private program that is the nation's only all-female cadet corps. Applications for that program jumped from 200 last spring to nearly 900 this year, Williams said.

Mary Baldwin has more students in its coeducation programs than in the residential college, Cabe said, but the school has no plans to give up its women-only identity.

"Our brand, our identity is really wrapped up in our heritage as a women's college," she said. "We think that if we gave that up entirely, we would do ourselves adisservice. We don't think that we'd be as strong without that identity at the undergraduate level."

Karin Kapsidelis reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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