Struggling College Shops for New Accreditation

Bennett College, to keep its accreditation and access to federal aid, follows a playbook used by other small religious colleges.

March 27, 2019
 

When Bennett College, a historically black institution in Greensboro, N.C., made a last-ditch effort to keep its accreditation -- and its access to federal student aid -- last month, it followed a course well trodden by struggling colleges.

Bennett sued its accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, to block its termination over ongoing financial troubles. And shortly thereafter, Bennett announced that it would also seek approval from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a national accreditor of religious colleges.

In recent years, a handful of small, religiously affiliated institutions faced with termination by the commission, most notably Paul Quinn College in 2009, have sought approval from TRACS to keep their accreditation and, critically, their access to federal student aid. Hiwassee College, also in 2009, and Paine College last year pursued the same course. Another, Brewton-Parker College, applied for recognition with TRACS in 2015 but later had its accreditation with the commission restored on appeal. Like Bennett, Paul Quinn and Paine Colleges are both historically black institutions.

TRACS was launched in 1991 with a mission of overseeing mostly evangelical Christian colleges uncomfortable with other accreditors. But it’s become an attractive option for other struggling religious institutions. Those moves raise questions about what power accreditors actually have to enforce accountability. And Bennett is fighting to keep its approval as larger debates swirl about the difference between regional and national accreditors as well alleged discrimination by accreditors against small black colleges.

“Bennett is following the playbook that we wrote,” said Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn. “The logic is sound.”

Sorrell said colleges seeking new accreditation welcome tough evaluation but argues there is more than one way to accomplish that.

“No one here is looking for a free pass,” he said.

Bennett's decision to apply to TRACS followed conversations with Sorrel as well as Paine College president Jerry Hardee. The strategy shows how small institutions looking to stay afloat will exhaust all opportunities to keep their doors open long after an accreditor decides to yank its approval. It also suggests that when an accreditor pulls a college’s recognition, it’s not necessarily game over.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies college accountability, said accreditors increasingly don't have the final word about whether colleges continue to operate.

“Lawsuits can drag out for years,” he said. “And politicians are starting to take action against accreditors when they act.”

As long as a college keeps its access to federal aid, though, students themselves will likely take little notice of the complex maneuvering that can go into a struggling school keeping its accreditation. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, the president of Bennett, said that's the bottom line for the college's students.

"What matters to students is that we are accredited and that we provide a quality education," she said. "The quality of our programs will continue whether we are accredited by SACS or TRACS."

Demands for Accreditors to Do More

Accreditors, which are considered the third leg of the federal accountability system along with states and the federal government, are peer-review bodies that determine whether colleges meet standards for financial strength and academic quality. Without their approval, institutions can't maintain their access to Title IV federal student aid programs, which is critical to most colleges' survival. But accreditors have faced increasing pressure in recent years from lawmakers and federal officials to conduct tougher scrutiny of academic and financial weaknesses at colleges that could pose risks to students and federal funds.

Fueling that political pressure is the growing sense that accreditors have done little to sanction or close the worst schools. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, with oversaw Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, came under fire after the failure of those for-profit chains, leading the Obama administration to seek the accreditor's elimination. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s first education secretary, referred to the organizations in 2015 as the “watchdogs that don’t bite.” A 2014 Government Accountability Office report found that when accreditors do sanction colleges, they usually do so because of financial problems, not academic quality issues. That was true of the institutions that have sought approval from TRACS after losing approval from the southern commission.

Belle Wheelan, the president of SACS, said she is glad, however, that the commission doesn’t object to those colleges finding recognition elsewhere.

“That’s fine with us. We don’t enjoy closing down an institution,” she said. “If you ask any of our board members, they are glad our institutions have a safety net.”

Wheelan acknowledged that most of the institutions that are dropped by SACS lose their recognition for financial reasons. That’s an outcome that can take anywhere from three to five years to unfold.

“I don’t know their standards, so I’m in no position to tell you about the quality of their standards,” Wheelan said of TRACS. “I have to assume they have a different way of calculating financial security and stability.”

Origins of an Alternative Accreditor

TRACS was founded for reasons that had little to do with providing another chance to colleges that had experienced financial turmoil. Instead, it was meant to be a home for religious institutions that weren’t comfortable with other accreditors, particularly those who rejected the teaching of evolution. Its statement of faith in particular came under scrutiny. Those statements, which commit faculty and students to living out the ideals of an institution, are common at evangelical colleges. And the TRACS statement stood out in that it references the "six literal days of the creation week" as part of a belief in viewing the Bible as factually true as a historic record.

Its beginnings were somewhat controversial. Then education secretary Lamar Alexander, now the GOP chairman of the Senate education committee, approved the organization despite recommendations against it by the federal advisory board charged with overseeing accreditors. Members of the advisory board had raised questions about the quality of the standards it applied to institutions. Critics also saw the statement of faith as a red flag. But Alexander at the time argued for more diversity in accreditation.

The organization’s federal recognition was renewed last year without any issues; the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the body that oversees accreditors, voted unanimously to approve TRACS again.

Sorrell said Paul Quinn settled on the organization because it matched the college’s mission as a faith-based institution and was considered the most rigorous of potential accreditors.

“Rigor was very important to us,” he said. “We knew there would be people out there who would say we just did this to get an easier path, and that fundamentally was not true.”

Some skeptics have raised questions about what would appear to be an odd fit between TRACS, which has historically overseen evangelical Christian institutions, and the colleges affiliated with different faith traditions that have sought recognition there in recent years. While these colleges all have religious ties, they teach students of diverse faiths and do not require the same level of faculty and student shared beliefs as do the colleges originally accredited by TRACS.

Paul Gaston, a trustees professor in the English Department at Kent State University, has studied accreditation broadly and TRACS in particular. When he reviewed the organization’s membership for a 2014 book, he found most of the colleges it oversaw expressed an explicit affinity with the principles outlined in the organization's statement of faith.

Those principles include the belief in the Bible as in the infallible word of God and the doctrine of the Trinity -- both common in the faith statements of religious institutions -- as well as a belief in the six literal days of creation.

“That’s what makes this current phenomenon a little unusual,” he said.

But Timothy Eaton, the president of TRACS, said colleges are not expected to adopt the same statement of faith as the accreditor -- or to use it as a cue for the content of academic instruction. The organization expects colleges to issue their own statements of their values to inform staff and potential students.

“We’re unapologetic that we think God is the author and the creator,” Eaton said. “What we’re looking for is a Christian worldview, and so we’re looking for the institution to demonstrate how its Christian perspective plays itself out in the day-to-day life of students.”

At Paul Quinn, the college’s foundational principles are meant to establish a campus culture of high character, Sorrell said.

“We want you to leave a place better than you found it,” he said.

Paul Quinn, as well as Paine and Hiwassee, also publish doctrinal or faith statements corresponding with the teachings of various Methodist bodies. Rather than adopting tenets of the TRACS statement of faith, they say, those documents meet the requirements that they publish an expression of their institutional values.

Dawkins said the history of TRACS has come up in conversations with students and parents. But she said there have been no efforts by the accreditor to impose a particular religious point of view on the college.

"We were told very clearly that we can operate Bennett according to our United Methodist college doctrine," Dawkins said. "They don't discriminate against different institutions by religious affiliation. There's no conflict."

Broader Accreditation Debate Reignited

While the accreditor has been a landing spot for some small colleges, other struggling institutions haven’t been able to pull off such a maneuver to stay open. And colleges without a Christian affiliation wouldn’t find a clear fit at an organization like TRACS.

Bennett’s pursuit of new accreditation also takes place as a rule-making process at the Education Department has reignited a long-running debate over the value of regional versus national accreditation. Sorrell sees little difference for an institution or its students.

“When you apply to a different accrediting body, they’re looking at you from the moment you apply,” he said. “Many times the regional accreditor doesn’t have the flexibility to take everything into account that has transformed the institution.”

The college that Paul Quinn had become when it was approved by TRACS was radically different than the one that had its accreditation terminated by the southern commission, he said.

While the Trump administration has pushed for a re-evaluation of the perceived differences between regional and national accreditors, the regionals' handling of HBCUs has become a particular sore spot for many critics. Their approach to small historically black colleges was the subject of a war of words this month between Wheelan and Michael Lomax, the president of the United Negro College Fund, which represents private HBCUs. In a speech on the state of historically black colleges, Lomax called on Congress to examine the practices of regional accreditors, who he argued have levied "harsh, seemingly disparate" sanctions against black colleges

Lomax said that enrollment size and finances have become the focus of accreditors like the southern commission, indicative of an "apparent bias against small institutions with modest financial resources." The termination of Bennett College's recognition was a prime example, he said. Dawkins, who was in the audience for Lomax's remarks, agreed. She said there is an institutional bias among accreditors against small, underresourced institutions.

"The standards should apply equally across all institutions," she said.

But Wheelan pushed back forcefully on complaints about discrimination against small HBCUs. In a letter to Lomax, she said that colleges like Paine and Bennett with small endowments, declining enrollments and growing debt won't be able to meet the standards of any accreditor recognized by the Department of Education.

"These crippling factors debilitate smaller institutions long before they undergo the accreditation review process," she wrote. "Incidentally, every institution SACSCOC has removed from membership has failed during litigation to demonstrate that the commission did not follow its procedures or that institutions were treated unfairly."

Wheelan's statement points to a harsh reality for Bennett, which will face a long road to securing permanent accreditation even after an impressive fund-raising campaign that took in a haul of more than $8.3 million. The long-term financial picture at the college has been in decline for years; the net assets held by Bennett fell for six straight years before a small uptick in 2018. And it will have to demonstrate financial stability in order to win full accreditation from TRACS, a process that will likely take years to complete.

But Dawkins said she's confident in the long-term prospects for the college.

"We have momentum right now," she said. "Bennett is still relevant to today's society as an HBCU and as a women's institution."

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