Atlanta College Presidents On The Future Of Women’s Education

A Closer Look's Rose Scott and Denis O'Hayer interview the presidents of Spelman College and Agnes Scott about the abrupt closure announcement at Sweet Briar College and challenges all-women colleges face today.

Click to watch Rose Scott and Denis O’Hayer’s interview with Drs. Kiss and Tatum. 

Calling it a shock and surprise, the student body and faculty of Sweet Briar College say the recent announcement the all-women’s college is closing is simply disappointing.  

The 114-year-old, small liberal arts college is not alone when it cites financial challenges and difficulty in attracting students.

Currently Sweet Briar College has just under 600 students, and the student population has been decreasing each year.

Here in the metro area, the plight of Sweet Briar is not foreign to the presidents of Agnes Scott and Spelman colleges.

Dr. Elizabeth Kiss and Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum lead their institutions in a time where all universities and colleges face rising costs, but at the same time must increase endowments.

Dr. Tatum is Spelman’s ninth president, and recently announced she is retiring.  The institution, located in the Atlanta University Center, is one of two all-female, historically black colleges in the country.  It was founded as Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary by Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles.

Spelman College is healthy, not wealthy,” Dr. Tatum said. “Spelman has a strong enrollments base.”  Tatum took the helm as president in 2002.  She told Rose and Denis both Spelman and Agnes Scott attract students because of their urban location and their consortia with other institutions. 

Individually, each college faces challenges unique to its school.  Retention is the number one concern at Spelman according to President Tatum.  She told “A Closer Look” the school exceeded its most recent fundraising goal, raising $157.8 million – the most in the institution’s history.  ”Fifty-three million of it went directly to scholarship support for students,” Tatum said. “We know that getting into school is just the first hurtle, being able to afford and stay in school is so critical.”

In 2006, Dr. Elizabeth Kiss was appointed president of Agnes Scott College.  

Agnes Scott is also going strong, “We’ve had actually four of the ten largest first-year classes in our 125-year history just in the past few years,” President Kiss said, “Sweet Briar had a lot of tough things going on it seems, in retrospect, but it doesn’t mean that other women’s colleges aren’t going strong.”  

Sweet Briar’s closure may actually be a silver lining for Agnes Scott.  Kiss praised her administration for creating a web page the very day Sweet Briar announced its closure, with directions on how students could transfer to Agnes Scott:  

We’ve received almost 100 inquiries so far and are actually working on a memorandum of understanding with Sweet Briar.  I can’t even imagine how devastating it would be for a student to have her college suddenly announce that it’s closing.

As the eighth president of Agnes Scott, Dr. Kiss developed “Engaging a Wider World,” a strategic plan guiding the college through the year 2014, and “The Roadmap to 2020,” a plan for financial sustainability.

Under Dr. Kiss’ leadership, Agnes Scott fielded the first women’s collegiate varsity lacrosse team in Georgia.

Both presidents agree strong leadership is needed to keep their institutions growing and competing against coed colleges and online institutions.

April Williams contributed to this report.