​​Closing of historic Va. women's college signals turmoil for higher education

SWEET BRIAR, Va. -- In the hills of Central Virginia, Sweet Briar College has been educating young women for more than a century. But for students, like sophomore Jordyn Elliott, that will end this spring when the school shutters its campus for good.

"I have a half-finished scrapbook of memories, and just knowing that it's not going to be there, it's devastating," said Elliott.

For the school's nearly 700 students, there was no warning before President Jimmy Jones announced that the college of their dreams was running out of money.

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Sweet Briar College President Jimmy Jones CBS News

"Other than the funerals I have had to officiate at, this was by far the hardest thing I could ever imagine myself doing as a president," said Jones.

Jones told me there's nothing anyone could have done to save the school. The college's endowment is $85 million but Jones says it would take closer to $250 million to keep the doors open. He cites the growing cost of awarding financial aid, tens of millions of dollars needed to maintain the 3,200 acre campus, and paying down the school's debt.

Since 2008, 25 other colleges have faced similar difficulties and also shut down; 35 have had to merge. Jones says higher education is in serious trouble, challenged on every single front.

"I think the whole of American higher education is on the cusp of a state of flux that we have never seen ever," said Jones.

How did student loans become fastest-growing type of debt?

The challenges include the soaring cost of tuition - a chronic problem in higher education today; declining enrollment; suffocating student debt; and competition from inexpensive online schools.

The college's students have been talking with other schools about transferring -- and making sure they don't get burned again. First-semester senior Comora Littlejohn was that close to graduating.

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Comora Littlejohn, left, Jordyn Elliott, middle, Jona Cumani, right CBS News

"I cried immediately because I said, 'wow I had one semester left and that's being taken away from me,'" said Littlejohn.

But there is an effort to save Sweet Briar. On Monday the county attorney asked the judge to block to school's closing and many graduates and students say they're not giving up.

"The gloves have come off, we're fighting for our school now," said sophomore Jordyn Elliott.

But a knockout punch had better come fast. The final day of classes is just over a month away.

  • Chip-Reid_bio_140x100_bw.jpg
    Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.