Bennett College loses appeal to keep accreditation after raising nearly $10M
UPDATE, Feb. 22, 2019: Bennett College has lost its accreditation after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) announced Friday that a committee rejected the HBCU"s appeal because it did not have a "stable financial base."
The appeals committee reviewed Bennett's financial information, including the $9.5 million it raised in a bid to keep its accreditation. It found the college didn’t show that it has the resources to "support the mission and scope of (its) programs and services."
Bennett is expected to sue SACSCOC in order to keep its accreditation while it finds another accreditor or fixes its financial issues.
- Bennett College, a historically black women's liberal arts college in North Carolina, raised $8.2 million in a two-month fundraising campaign to avoid losing accreditation. At a hearing later this month, its accreditor will review the fundraising campaign and other financials to determine whether its accreditation can be formally reinstated.
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) announced in December that it would revoke Bennett's accreditation over concerns about its financial health. The college appealed the decision, with officials hoping to raise $5 million by Feb. 1 to boost its finances.
- The college launched a successful social media campaign under the hashtag #StandWithBennett that helped it nab million-dollar donations from nearby High Point University and from Kwanza Jones and José Feliciano, a couple who gave through their organization called the Supercharged Initiative. In all, Bennett received donations from roughly 11,000 contributors, including alumni, churches, and local and national businesses.
Bennett President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins announced during a press conference Monday that the college had surpassed its goal by more than $3 million. "We appreciate each and every gift that we were given, no matter how small or how large," she said.
Before the college launched its multimillion-dollar campaign, declining enrollment triggered back-to-back years of budget deficits. In late 2016, SACSCOC suspended its accreditation before moving to take it away permanently in December, citing concerns over its finances. In fiscal 2016, the college reported a net loss of $1.1 million as its net assets fell year-over-year by 12.5%, to $14.5 million.
By the end of June 2018, Bennett's endowment value stood at $13 million, according to its website.
To help keep its status, the college had just 55 days to raise $5 million. Only hours before Bennett's deadline, High Point University announced it was donating $1 million to the college — the biggest sum given up to that point in the campaign.
"I had never held a million dollar check," Dawkins said about the moment High Point's president handed her the donation. "I didn't have my purse with me, so I just folded it up and put in in my jean pocket."
More late-stage donations were announced during Monday's press conference, including from the Wyndham Championship, Old Dominion Freight Line and BB&T. "Let me just say, we are still counting," Dawkins said.
If Bennett's accreditation appeal isn't successful, it's likely it will sue SACSCOC while seeking accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Diverse reported.
The outpouring of donations for Bennett counters the trend for most HBCUs. Though colleges increasingly rely on big gifts to maintain operations, mega-donors rarely give to historically black colleges. In fact, HBCUs received only two of the 462 gifts of $1 million or more to higher education in 2017, Inside Philanthropy reported.
The reasons vary. For one, HBCU alumni aren't usually as wealthy as those of Ivy League colleges, who are more likely to be big donors as a result. Additionally, non-alumni donors tend to shy away from giving to HBCUs.
"There's racism involved in acquiring funds," University of Pennsylvania Professor Marybeth Gasman told Bloomberg, noting that in the past "funders did not trust African Americans to manage their money, so they didn't give."
Bennett is not the first small college to narrowly pull off a daunting fundraising drive. Sweet Briar College, Antioch College and Iowa Wesleyan University are just a few examples of small colleges that were either saved or brought back from closure by an outpouring of donations and other support.
Even so, it remains to be seen whether these colleges can achieve a sustainable financial model through fundraising alone. (Though Sweet Briar has seen a jump in enrollment following changes in curriculum and pricing, Antioch has missed its targets.)
Other small colleges have had to undertake difficult transformations to keep afloat amid a changing landscape in higher education. For instance, Mills College, a women-only institution in California, overhauled its programming, cut tuition and trimmed staff in order to change its "deficit culture."
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