Accrediting Ups and Downs

December 27, 2006

Three regional accrediting agencies announced decisions this month on the status of the colleges and universities they oversee. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools added one institution to its probation list and removed four others, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges eased an earlier decision to end the accreditation of a California theology school.

Following are highlights of the three agencies' actions:

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. At its December meeting, the association's Commission on Colleges took actions involving 89 institutions. Four institutions that had been on probation were removed from that fragile status: Art Institute of Dallas; Huntingdon and Talladega Colleges, in Alabama; and Lees-McRae College, in North Carolina. Five other institutions were removed from warning status, which is one step away from probation: Belhaven College, in Mississippi; Covenant College, in Georgia; Mount Olive College, in North Carolina; North Florida Community College, in Florida; and Thomas More College, in Kentucky.

Several colleges, however, moved in a negative rather than positive direction in the Southern association's view. The only new institution to join the accreditor's probation list was Alabama's Bishop State Community College, which was placed on probation for six months for failure to comply with the agency's standards on integrity and governance and administration, and for problems in its compliance with federal financial aid regulations.

Bishop State has made a steady stream of headlines in recent months -- like some of its peers in the Alabama Community College System -- as the U.S. Education Department ordered the college to repay about $150,000 in Pell Grant funds and, in September, limited the college's ability to collect federal student aid. The financial aid problems led to arrests by state law-enforcement authorities investigating potential fraud, and state officials are reportedly undertaking a more general investigation of the two-year-college's problems.

Several Bishop State officials have resigned in recent months, and the Southern Association deemed the college to be falling short, among other things, of its standard requiring that "the institution has qualified administrative and academic officers with the experience, competence and capacity to lead the students."

College officials released a statement to reporters saying: "The Bishop State administration, faculty and staff remain committed to making whatever changes necessary to meet and exceed all the standards of SACS in the most timely manner in order that we can continue to offer an accredited education to our students."

Four other institutions remained on the Southern association's probation list because of continuing problems: American InterContinental University, part of the Career Education Corp.'s stable of colleges; North Carolina's St. Andrews Presbyterian College, whose president was ousted last week amid continuing financial problems; LeMoyne-Owen College, in Tennessee; and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, in South Carolina.

The Southern accreditor also added a handful of institutions to its warning list, including Eckerd College, in Florida, and Randolph-Macon Woman's College, in Virginia, both for perceived financial problems. Randolph-Macon became Randolph College this month, after making a controversial decision to begin admitting men.

Western Association of Schools and Colleges. In June, the Western accreditor's Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities voted to terminate the accreditation of Claremont School of Theology, citing problems with the institution's financial management and planning. The theology school's president, the Rev. Jerry D. Campbell, who had taken over just two weeks previously, appealed the decision while acknowledging serious problems.

At the accrediting association's November meeting, the college commission reconsidered its decision, even though it continued to find that the institution to be falling short of three of the commission's four major requirements. "While the school is out of compliance with Standards 1, 3, and 4, the commission extended accreditation for good cause," the commission's leaders said in a prepared statement. "The commission has acted to allow the new leadership of the school the period until the February 21-22, 2008, meeting of the commission to demonstrate that is has fully met the WASC Accreditation Standards."

Campbell, Claremont's president, said in a letter to the campus that officials at the school were pleased to have the chance to "demonstrate that it can operate within the parameters of the newly revised budget and business plan. ... While this is still a serious situation, I am pleased that the school continues to be regionally accredited for the next year and that we have the opportunity to continue our financial progress and our vital educational programs."

New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The New England accreditor's Commission on Institutions of Higher Education took actions regarding seven institutions at its annual meeting in Boston this month.

Of those, the most noteworthy was the initial accreditation of the F.W. Olin College of Engineering, an innovative new institution whose first class of students graduated last summer.

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