The Sweet Briar Dilemma: Will Predatory Lending Take Down More Colleges?

By Alan Smith |

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

There are plenty of people coming out of the woodwork to explain Sweet Briar’s problems. Dr. James F. Jones, the school’s president, claims that there are simply not enough people who want to attend an all-women’s rural liberal arts school (though application numbers and some pundits disagree); he blames the discount that the school was giving to low-income students for the institutional budget shortfall. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban says that Sweet Briar has fallen victim to the student loan bubble and that students are unwilling to commit the money to attend, which sounds a lot like the blame-the-homeowner narrative that came out of the 2008 financial crisis.  Others are wringing their hands that small colleges in general are doomed.   

These takes are varied and complex, but they are all missing an important point: that predatory banking practices and bad financial deals played an important and nearly invisible role in precipitating the school’s budget crisis.  

A quick look at Sweet Briar’s audited financial reports (easily available in public records) reveals enough confusing and obfuscating financial-speak to last a lifetime, but a few days of digging did manage to unearth a series of troubling things.  

A single swap on a bond issued in June 2008 cost Sweet Briar more then a million dollars in payments to Wachovia before the school exited the swap in September 2011. While it is unclear exactly why they chose 2011 to pay off the remainder of the bond early, they paid a $730,119 termination fee. For a school that was sorely strapped for cash, these fines and the fees that accrued around this deal (which are hard to definitively pick out from financial documents) couldn’t have come at a worse time.  

Just how big a deal are these numbers? The school has a relatively small endowment even among small liberal arts colleges: currently valued at about $88 million, with less then a quarter of that total completely unrestricted and free to spend. But in 2014, the financial year that appears to have been the final straw for Sweet Briar, total operating revenues were $34.8 million and total operating expenditures were $35.4 million, which means that the deficit the school is running is actually smaller than the cost of any of the bad deals it’s gotten itself into with banks. 

All of this puts in a very stark light the fact that the early retirement of debt (in other words, the losses the school suffered on the overall value of the bonds it had taken out because it decided to pay them back early) cost the school over $9 million in 2011 and more than $13 million in 2012. Why did the school accrue these costs? We have no way of knowing if it was bad advice from bankers, negligent trustee members covering a mistake, or a well-intentioned plan that hit at the wrong time.  

What we can say, though, is that a million dollars here and a million dollars there adds up to real money that was desperately needed as Sweet Briar fought to stay afloat.  

We know that Wall Street collects higher fees on risky and complicated deals involving variable rate debt and hedging instruments, like the ones found in Sweet Briar’s last few decades of financials, than from fixed rate debt deals. We know that they add on things like credit enhancements, further driving up the costs. We know that those higher fees mean that there is a clear financial incentive to sell schools, municipalities, and pension funds on these risky deals. And we know that it works in Wall Street’s favor that someone like me can spend days digging into this stuff and still not be totally sure what the exact costs of these deals are.  

What we don’t know is how all these things were allowed to happen at this particular school in this particular timeframe.  

Sweet Briar appears slated to close because it is a small organization without the resources to counter the huge information imbalance that has helped precipitate the financialization crisis. It is closing because it signed some terrible deals to get what must have felt like “needed” money at the time. You can see the reasons: a $14 million bond (with swaps) in 2001 for campus improvements. A $10 million bond in 2006 to pay off other bonds that had revealed their ugly side and were costing the school too much to be allowed to fully mature. But, as has so often been the case in everything from municipal finance to personal home loans, there was a problem in the small print. Like many other colleges, what appeared to be vital and even beneficial deals turned out to be nothing of the sort. Unlike many others, Sweet Briar was already close enough to the financial brink that these ongoing debts made the difference between staying open and closing its doors.  

There are, of course, other very real pressures on Sweet Briar. Lower enrollment numbers do really hurt a school, and there are real questions about how to keep small, rural liberal arts institutions competitive in a higher education economy. None of these issues, however, compare to the fees, fines, penalties, and other losses that are all over Sweet Briar’s books. 

Is Sweet Briar the canary in the coalmine? Banks are certainly making obscene profits on the backs of the swap deals in the UC system, at the University of Michigan, and at American University — and those are the places that we’ve found in our first month of looking. While those schools are solvent enough that these swaps are not pushing them to the brink of closing, they are exacerbating budget shortfalls and passing debt on to students through increased costs. These deals are also clearly making money for many school trustees whose day jobs happen to be with the giant banks. Here I find myself agreeing with Mark Cuban, at least in part: these trends are a part of a vicious cycle of borrowing that is wholly unsustainable, and will eventually lead to a crisis.  

This is why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is working to track the ways in which financial institutions are extracting wealth from our colleges and universities, and make a clear case for demanding our money back. I hope that the storied institution of Sweet Briar can find a way to keep its doors open in 2016, but even if it fails, that failure should wake us up to predatory practices at colleges and universities around the country.   

Questions? Concerns? Interested in my math? Drop me a line.

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

Alan Smith was a Senior Program Associate with the Roosevelt Institute. Capitalizing on work from students and alums, he supported the organization's mission to re-write the rules by driving the Rethinking Communities Initiative and Blueprint Series. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College, a veteran of the local campaign trail, and a proud alum of the Peabody Award-winning The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.