GREENSBORO — Since 2005, eight Southern colleges have appealed the loss of their accreditation. Just one has succeeded.
Could Bennett College be the second to win? That depends on how much money the college can raise in the next three weeks — but it’s not clear exactly how much the private school must collect.
“The issue is finances,” Belle Wheelan, the president of the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accreditation body, said in an interview Monday. “You’ve got to show that you have enough money to keep the institution open for a while.”
Bennett had been on probation for the past two years because of financial issues resulting largely from enrollment losses. Layoffs and program cuts weren’t able to prevent annual budget deficits.
The commission announced Dec. 11 that it would take away Bennett’s accreditation. The college immediately appealed and will keep its accreditation until a hearing next month.
It’s a crucial battle for Bennett. Colleges and universities that aren’t accredited can’t take federal funds — Pell Grants, federal student loans and other federal monies — as payment for tuition or other school expenses. Nearly all of Bennett’s students get financial aid.
In its December decision, the commission cited only one area — financial resources — where it said Bennett fell short. Wheelan declined to discuss Bennett’s financial situation in detail. A one-page statement posted on the commission’s website gives little insight. The college will get more specifics from the commission next week.
In the meantime, Bennett continues to make its case.
President Phyllis Dawkins said the college’s financial situation has improved since she became president in 2016. Enrollment and fundraising efforts have risen in each of the past two years. The college posted an annual operating surplus last year of about $440,000 and expects another surplus this year. A six-year loan deferment from the federal government is saving the college about $1 million a year.
Immediately after the commission’s December decision, the college said it would raise more than $5 million by Feb. 1 in hopes of satisfying the commission’s concerns. The college has collected close to $1.5 million since then. Dawkins said in an interview Friday that she is confident Bennett will meet that goal.
The next big date on Bennett’s calendar comes the week of Feb. 18, when the appeals panel convenes at an Atlanta-area hotel.
Wheelan said the panel will include 12 to 15 former commission trustees — typically presidents, deans and administrators of member schools. The commission accredits about 800 public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities in 11 Southern states.
Colleges can appeal on one of two grounds, Wheelan said. They can claim the commission didn’t follow its own rules when it removed accreditation, or they can argue that the commission acted arbitrarily toward the school. In these cases, colleges can present no new information to the appeals panel.
There’s a third route for colleges in financial trouble.
“Bennett can bring more financial information to the appeal,” Wheelan said. That could include evidence of a successful recent fundraising drive, she said.
The panel will render its decision the day it meets or the day after. Wheelan said the appeals panel has two options:
• It can turn down the appeal. Dawkins has said Bennett will file a lawsuit in federal court to keep its accreditation while seeking accreditation elsewhere.
• Or it can return Bennett’s case to the commission for further review. That could pave the way for Bennett to regain its good standing with SACS.
So what are Bennett’s chances of winning its appeal? Not great based on past history. In Wheelan’s 14 years as the commission’s president, she said eight schools have appealed their loss of accreditation. Only one — Brewton-Parker College in Georgia — has won.
The private Baptist school lost its accreditation in mid-2014 because of financial issues. Six months later, the college convinced the commission it had “sufficient financial resources to meet its obligations and its mission, is financially stable, is in control of its finances, and complies with its Title IV program responsibilities to the U.S. Department of Education,” according to a statement on the college’s website.
“They found some money,” said Wheelan, who declined to say how much money the Georgia school raised. “That’s the only way (Bennett is) getting out of it. They have to find a significant amount of money.”
Is there a magic fundraising number Bennett must hit?
“Only the (appeals panel) can tell them that,” Wheelan said.