Bennett College for Women remains a fully accredited member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), on probationary status as a result of a lawsuit filed by the school against the accreditor last week.
Every problem which led to the school having its accreditation revoked last December, and the revocation upheld in an appeal last week remains in place; a world of support from the HBCU community which cannot boost Bennett’s enrollment, cannot bolster its strategic vision, and cannot pay down the entirety of its mounting debts.
A lot of people don’t realize the level of crisis which has faced Bennett for more than a decade, which just came to a head over the last several months. And it is clear that HBCU stakeholders really have no idea about what accreditation is and why it matters, and how HBCUs are made vulnerable by accreditation assessment and actions.
With a number of HBCUs facing dire financial straits and potential accreditation sanctions in the coming years, it may be time for the HBCU community to become more nuanced about the administrative and operational elements which trigger accreditation inquiry, and why that inquiry is vital to the survival of black colleges.
WHAT IS ACCREDITATION?
HBCUs nationwide are accredited by one of several regional accrediting organizations. Along with SACSCOC, they include the Higher Learning Commission, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, the organization with which Bennett is seeking membership, and Paine College recently joined after losing its SACSCOC membership and suing to have it reinstated.
All of these organizations have standards with which they assess schools’ ability to operate in three basic areas – having a leadership structure (a board and a president) having the ability to teach and prepare students for academic and professional development, and having the money to stay open for business.
HOW ACCREDITATION WORKS
Here is a basic overview of how schools are determined to be accreditation worthy, as provided by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Self-study: Institutions and programs prepare a written summary of performance based on accrediting organization’s standards.
Peer review: Accreditation review is conducted primarily by faculty, administrators, and members of the public.
Site visit: Accrediting organization normally sends a visiting team to review an institution or program. Team members are volunteers.
Action (judgment) of accrediting organization: Accrediting organization has a commission that makes decisions about the accredited status of institutions and programs.
Monitoring and oversight: Institutions and programs are reviewed over time in cycles from every few years to ten years. Normally, these reviews include a site visit.
If during any of these steps a school demonstrates it is out of compliance, accreditors will change the schools’ status from fully accredited to warning (notice that a school is out of compliance), probation (mandated action to fix an area of non-compliance), and revoked (accreditation is taken).
It takes years of repeated non-compliance to move from fully accredited to revoked, and a school with years of non-compliance usually signals that there is a problem which cannot be easily resolved with a change in policy or execution.
That typically means something is wrong with money.
Let’s take a look at SACSCOC’s accreditation standards on finance.
Now, let’s pull out the very first element of the standard guideline.
1. The institution has sound financial resources and a demonstrated, stable financial base to support the mission of the institution and the scope of its programs and services. (Financial resources)
And finally, let’s go to the updated decision letter from SACSCOC on Bennett’s accreditation status.
FINANCIAL RESOURCES VS. FINANCIAL BASE
Most accreditors expect two things from a school when it comes to money; cash in the bank and a healthy endowment, and stability in enrollment paying operational costs and debt. This standard is to protect students and school employees from the likelihood that a school can suddenly and without warning shut its doors and leave everyone without a plan for transfering, graduating, or having to suddenly find a new job without final paychecks coming in.
Financial resources is the cash, and a financial base is stable revenue. Put more simply, resources is money in the bank and a base is the paycheck.
When HBCUs go on warning, probation or lose their accreditation, it is typically because they do not have the the financial base, a direct reflection of student enrollment and money needed for operations and paying off debt.
Here’s a list of HBCUs to recently encounter accreditation issues. They share a sobering trend relative to enrollment and its connections to accreditation maintenance.
Part II – Where Does the Money Go?