Letter to the Community: April Update

Posted on May 13, 2020 by Meredith Woo

Dear Colleagues,

The Sweet Briar Board of Directors held a virtual meeting on May 1. Of the many issues discussed, two stood out: the preparations for fall opening, and the financial impact of COVID-19. The logistics to allow the College to resume residential instruction are mind-boggling, involving variables that are knowable and unknowable. The College has a taskforce headed by Jodi Canfield, collaborating with three groups: a “living team” led by Marcia Thom-Kaley, a “learning team” led by Teresa Garrett, and a team concentrating on all aspects of medical preparedness, led by Luther Griffith. The task force will be working very closely with you as well as the board.

As for the financial impact of COVID-19, we know that the loss through the rest of this fiscal year and the summer is likely to be as high as $2 million, some of which is offset with the relief funding we have received from the federal government. What will be far more critical to the financial impact is if enrollment does not materialize for both new and returning students in the fall. During the board meeting, we presented a number of scenarios. If students are in residence but enrollment drops by 20 percent – which is what most colleges are bracing for – the lost revenue could be as much as $1.8 million. If we have to continue remote teaching in the fall, meaning there will be no room and board revenue, the loss would be $2.5 million if all expected students return, and $3.8 million if we have a 20 percent enrollment drop. Note that these losses are only in student-related revenues, and do not include potential drop in fundraising or endowment.

The difficulties we face are not specific to Sweet Briar. Nearly all colleges and universities in the nation are tightening belts, and devising strategies to overcome the challenges before them. With perseverance and creativity, I believe we can do the same.

Now for some comforting news:


According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL), one of the largest enrollment management consultants in the country, 80 percent of their private college clients are reporting a decline in enrollment deposits, compared to last year. About 4 percent have remained flat, and 16 percent are reporting an uptick. We are in the last group, with a 17 percent increase over last year.

RNL confirms that our location and size are working in our favor. It strongly urges that we communicate to all, particularly the admitted students and parents, the message – based on our latest press release on the fall opening – that we can provide single occupancy rooms, farm-to-table dining, and social distancing measures.

Perhaps the greater concern for enrollment – both at Sweet Briar and elsewhere – is the recessionary impact of COVID-19. We are providing additional, if small, financial aid supplements to incentivize students to deposit now and/or file their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) by June 1.

While this is encouraging news, we are also mindful of the national survey of deposited students that reports one out of five deposited students may not go to college at all in the fall, and the remaining four are susceptible to changing their minds.

This will be a long summer. Many colleges have extended their deposit deadlines to June 1st, and the Admissions and Financial Aid teams are aggressively pursuing additional enrollment during this extended period of opportunity.

Sweet Briar’s admissions partnership with Virginia Tech (VT) is moving apace. VT has been cooperative, sending messages on behalf of Sweet Briar to select students for whom it does not have space. That said, VT itself faces a large shortfall of enrollment, especially from a big drop in foreign student deposits, and it is expected to reach deeper than anticipated into its pool of waitlisted students.

Thank you to all of you who participated in our first virtual admitted student open house, allowing students to participate in mock classes, Q & A panels, and conversations with campus leaders. Admissions continues to partner across campus to create additional virtual engagement opportunities.

Academics, Athletics, Student Life

We are finishing the 3-week session, which appears to have gone well. Faculty and students seem to have managed as well as could be expected.

The focus at the moment is the fall semester: we are reviewing the fall courses, which must be delivered effectively and safely. Expanding online technology infrastructure is critical, to accommodate students who may need to participate remotely in courses for a time during the semester. Principles and policies for accommodating faculty, staff, and students who are COVID-19 vulnerable are under development.

We are also on track for first-year advising, which will occur earlier in the summer to minimize melt.

Students continued collegiate life as best they could – virtually. Four dozen students were involved in the Student Government Association meeting on May 4, and it was one of the largest such meetings, virtual or real. Other organizations and clubs continue to meet, and Student Life counts 125 students as being engaged in extracurricular activities per week.

In spite of the uncertainty, athletes continue to deposit. Athletes and equestrians constitute 63 percent of our 130 deposits. We currently have 50 equestrians who have deposited. Athletics and Equestrian programs hold virtual recruiting events and tours every week, and will hold their banquet (virtually) on May 22.

Construction on the east and west wings of the riding center are coming along. The model stall was delivered for review last week – and it looked just terrific!

Kudos to senior Emily Wandling and junior Lily Peterson who were each named ODAC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in tennis and equestrian sport, respectively. This is the top academic honor for the ODAC, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of their accomplishments.

Finance, Operation and Auxiliaries

Finance, Alumnae Relations and Development, and my office have been focused on obtaining COVID-19 related relief grants from the Department of Education. We completed the applications and received grants that total $500,000. We received a potentially forgivable loan from the Payroll Protection Program, and are working on a number of potential long-term loans from the US Department of Agriculture. We continue to explore funding through both the Department of Education as well as the Department of Commerce for the Commonwealth.

Since mid-March, the changes to college operations have been extensive; however, all continue to function safely and competently. Campus access has been limited to faculty and staff, with the only outsiders being invited guests or contractors working by appointment. Campus Safety has handled the change with aplomb, providing service 24/7, and always with courteousness.

Finally, the arrival of Jenni Sauer, our new controller, has sped the important work of recasting our budget for FY20 and FY21. In partnership with Luther Griffith and Gary Canfield, she is working to introduce financial discipline at a time of great uncertainty.

Alumnae Relations, Development, Communications

Alumnae Relations and Development (AR & D) has faced headwinds. With the stock market turbulence, April fundraising numbers were significantly down in new money, compared to the previous 3 years. For the first three weeks of April, AR & D focused on stewardship by calling alumnae, and at the end of the month it began to implement its finish line strategy to maximize dollars raised by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

AR & D’s engagement in Admissions via the “Alumnae Ambassadors” program produced results in the form of 30 students who have deposited from tier 2 and 3 areas, meaning beyond the Commonwealth and adjacent areas.

Communications, under the direction of AR & D, has launched a multimedia marketing blitz – print, editorial, digital and radio – for Admissions, and supported numerous virtual events that were hosted through Admissions. It has also excelled in crisis communication, keeping our constituencies well informed of the decisions being taken in the College even as the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding.

AR & D is also in the business of building relationships, and performed superbly in that regard. Working as the de facto government relations office for Sweet Briar, it has continued to strengthen the important relationships we have in our county, Richmond, and Washington DC.

Sweet Briar is also spreading good will, in so many different ways. Through an entity called Neighbors Helping Neighbors, the College now provides its greenhouse harvest to those impacted by COVID-19, and to the food bank of the Monacan Indian Nation. Thank you, Lisa Powell, for your hard work and dedication to harvesting crops – and relationships.

And last but not least, we delivered 300 Sweet Briar donuts to the “first responders” in Amherst County. Robin Mays was in the kitchen at 4 AM, to make those heavenly donuts as she has done for the last three decades. Our county’s “first responders,” from the sheriff to the drivers of medical emergency vehicles, were both appreciative and delighted.

Meredith Woo