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Sweet Briar resets core curriculum and drops tuition and board fees by 32 percent

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Editor's Note: This story was updated.

Sweet Briar College announced Wednesday that it is reinventing the traditional model for a liberal arts education. Beginning in the 2018-19 academic year, the private, women’s college plans to reset its annual cost of tuition, room, board and fees to $34,000 — a 32 percent drop compared to this year’s total price of $50,055 — and offer a more flexible curriculum.

The changes, already approved by the college's board of directors, come not quite four months into the tenure of new college President Meredith Woo. Woo, who took over the reins at Sweet Briar in May, has said her overarching goal was to make Sweet Briar a relevant model for the 21st century. The 116-year-old college nearly closed in 2015 due to finanial challenges and dropping enrollment, but was saved when alumni and other friends of the institution donated money and went to court to keep the college open. 

In addition to the drop in tuition — designed to make the college more affordable to middle-class families — are curricular changes. Instead of traditional departments, faculty and majors will be clustered around three centers of excellence: Engineering, Science and Technology in Society, Human and Environmental Sustainability, and Creativity, Design and the Arts.

Over the summer, a faculty-led academic initiatives task force developed a proposal for some major changes. The first adopts a core curriculum with a focus on women’s leadership. It will include 10 to 12 integrated courses that refocus Sweet Briar’s general education requirements on what it describes as its greatest strength: developing “women of consequence.” Proposals from faculty include a first-year research experience, ethics of leadership, financial literacy, rhetoric and communication, and a capstone requirement.

The three new interdisciplinary “centers of excellence” will be dedicated to solving contemporary problems. Meanwhile, some majors will be dropped.

Finally, the academic calendar will move from two 15-week semesters to a 3-12-12-3-week schedule. The three-week terms will allow for experiential learning opportunities, such as research, internships and study abroad. Every undergraduate student will be eligible for up to $2,000 to fund these experiences.

According to the school, the faculty will be working over the next several months to firm up details on the courses for the core curriculum and short-term projects. Woo told an alumni gathering in Richmond on Wednesday evening that the plan should be completed by Dec. 15. "The course that we are on is an exciting one, and it's one that the nation will be watching," Woo told the gathering.  She will be inaugurated officially as the college’s 13th president on Sept 22.

The college’s tuition is being reset because Woo believes the current system of discounting ever-increasing tuition is broken.

“Discount rates are confusing for students and families, and the high-tuition, high-discount rate model only works for a small number of institutions,” she said in the statement. “It requires a large number of full-pay students or an exceptionally large endowment for the numbers to work.”

The new cost structure, the school said, results from careful analysis and makes a Sweet Briar education competitive with selective public universities in Virginia and competitive with out-of-state tuition rates. It breaks down as $21,000 for tuition and fees, $7,000 for room and $6,000 for board. Need-based financial aid will continue, and more than 200 scholarships available for those who are eligible.

Woo added that the type of liberal arts education offered by Sweet Briar will centered on students (not instructors), on learning (not information delivery), on thinking (not memorization), and on doing (not just theorizing).”

The college, which opened its doors in 1901, reportedly has about 300 students on campus this fall.

Editor's Note: Virginia Business Publisher Bernie Niemeier is a member of Sweet Briar's Board of Directors.

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