Saint Augustine’s University, Bennett College on Probation - Higher Education
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Saint Augustine’s University, Bennett College on Probation

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by Reginald Stuart

Two of the nation’s oldest historically Black colleges, Saint Augustine’s University and Bennett College, were placed on probation Tuesday by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), signaling the two North Carolina institutions continue to battle financial challenges.

The SACSCOC actions against the two institutions were among the toughest of some 200 items reviewed this week in Atlanta by the board of SACSCOC, the influential higher education standards peer group, at its fall meeting. Institutions that fail to meet SACSCOC accrediting standards risk losing their eligibility to receive federal funds for students grants and loans.

Saint Augustine’s University President Everett B. Ward said his institution is making progress toward fiscal stability.

Saint Augustine’s University President Everett B. Ward said his institution is making progress toward fiscal stability.

SACSCOC took a wide range of other actions, from placing Baylor University in Texas on warning, a status reflecting continued concerns about the university’s athletic program to approving a plan by Tuskegee University to expand its online education offerings. Tuskegee won SACSCOC’s endorsement of its desire to offer Master’s Degrees in environmental science and environmental management.

SACSCOC also approved a plan from the State of Tennessee to overhaul the decade’s old higher education system involving the state’s six four-year institutions. The plan creates a separate board of governors for each of the six institutions, removing governance of the schools from the Tennessee Board of Regents. The shift, which is to take effect late next year, puts Tennessee among a growing number of states dividing governance responsibilities ostensibly to boost the institutions.

The toughest SACSCOC decisions did not come as a surprise, as Bennett and Saint Augustine’s are among a host of small, private liberal arts institutions that have been challenged by the economy, loss of enrollment and rising costs of doing business.

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Those ills had already prompted SACSCOC to place the institutions on warning status in recent years. Probation moves an institution closer to losing SACSCOC recognition, a move that would disqualify an institution from receiving federal student aid funds. SACSCOC can extend probation to two years. Still, a one-year status says an institution is nearing the edge of the ledge among peers, absent some dramatic turn of events upward.

If there is a bright side to the case of both institutions, it is the fact that SACSCOC had no issues with their academic operations or programs. The three broad performance standards it cited are all related to finances and the long –term viability of the schools.

Bennett Interim President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, a veteran of college accreditation battles, issued a brief statement noting the SACSCOC action and saying the institution is “working diligently to raise money, to increase enrollment and improve both our infrastructure and student life.”

Dawkins who joined the university less than six months ago to help it restore itself, has served in top roles at Cheyney State University and Dillard University.

Saint Augustine’s University President Everett B. Ward went to great lengths to put his institution’s situation in context.

“Though not out of the woods, we are undoubtedly in a better position today than we were one year ago,” Ward said in a statement issued after the SACSCOC action became public.

“Our recent audit reflects a debt reduction of over $1 million, which represents a significant shrinkage of our deficit,” said Ward. “This fall we had an increase in freshman enrollment and over the issued year we saw an increase in our donor giving.”

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Ward’s statement was accompanied by a detailed list of “frequently asked questions” that answer a myriad question spurred by such oversight actions. The list asked and answered possible questions about the process of the SASCOC action, what impact it is likely to have on current financial aid for students, possible impact on graduates getting jobs and internships.

The detailed rundown of questions and answers addresses the community of Saint Augustine’s and its peers. Saint Augustine’s reports more than 70% of its students receive financial aid of some amount from the institution in grants, scholarships and federal Pell Grants.

Saint Augustine’s, founded in 1867 as part of the Post-Civil War effort to give English educations to free slaves, has seen its financial support waver in recent years and, like most HBCUs, has faced an increasingly growing competition for students in the post-segregation era since the 1960s. Today Saint Augustine, which charges $25,000 a year in tuition, fees, room and board, reports an enrollment of 1,000 students.

Bennett, founded in 1873 and still function as a college for women, faces some of the same challenges.  It claims an enrollment of 403 students.

SACSCOC does not make public comment on its actions.

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