Bennett College gate

The Gorrell Street gate of Bennett College, with Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel in the background.

A month ago, shortly after word got out that Bennett College could lose its accreditation, several folks asked me if they thought the private women’s school would close.

A month ago, I said I didn’t know. Now, I’m going with probably not. It’s really, really hard to shut down a college, and Bennett is putting up a heck of a fight.

Bennett is trying to raise more than $5 million by Feb. 1 in hopes of remaining accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. (An important note: Bennett remains accredited while its appeal is in progress.) Raising that $5 million doesn’t guarantee Bennett will keep its accreditation long-term. As commission President Belle Wheelan said in an interview this week, "I've told their president they have dug their way out of the hole, but they're not yet on terra firma. They haven't been able to demonstrate they have money in hand."

Only the SACS appeals panel, Wheelan added, knows how much money the school needs to keep its accreditation.

The next big date on Bennett’s calendar comes the week of Feb. 18. That’s when college leaders will appear at an appeals hearing in Atlanta. Here’s where things get complicated for anyone trying to follow this story: No matter what happens that week, Bennett will hold onto its accreditation for a while longer.

If Bennett makes a convincing case, the appeals board will send Bennett’s case back to the commission for reconsideration. That action would suggest that Bennett will keep its accreditation for the long term.

If Bennett loses its appeal, President Phyllis Dawkins says said the college will sue. Wheelan told me the commission has agreed in the past to extend a school's accreditation for a year to give the legal process a chance to work out and to let a college figure out a Plan B.

So what is Bennett’s Plan B? Here are a few of the forks in the road ahead for Bennett if it loses its appeal next month.

Bennett could find another accreditor.

That’s the most likely next step for Bennett. Dawkins said this week that the school plans to apply for membership in the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, or TRACS.

Like SACS, TRACS is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. That means students at a TRACS-accredited Bennett would be able to use the same federal financial aid they do now.

TRACS, based outside of Lynchburg, Va., is smaller than SACS. (It has 77 full members and candidates for membership from around the nation and world; SACS has about 800 schools in 11 Southern states.) Most TRACS members are overtly Christian colleges and Bible schools.

The best-known TRACS schools are probably Bob Jones University in South Carolina, College of the Ozarks in Missouri and Patrick Henry College in Virginia. TRACS has accredited six North Carolina colleges, including Piedmont International University in Winston-Salem and Apex School of Theology in Durham.

At least three former SACS schools are now associated with TRACS. One is Hiwassee College in Tennessee, which lost its accreditation in 2008. Another is Paul Quinn College in Dallas, which was dropped from SACS membership in 2009. And then there's Paine College in Georgia. Paine is seeking TRACS accreditation after it lost SACS accreditation in 2016 and a federal lawsuit in October.

Because you're going to ask: Yes, Bennett College has had religious ties throughout its 146-year history. The Methodist Episcopal Church helped establish the school, which was a seminary for many of its early years. Bennett is now affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

Bennett could merge with another college.

That’s the path that the former St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg took in 2011 after SACS withdrew its accreditation in 2007 and the college lost its lawsuit in 2009.

St. Andrews University, as it's now known, is now a branch campus of Webber International University in Florida. (Webber is accredited by SACS, which apparently likes economies of scale.)

I have heard of no possible merger plans regarding Bennett.

Bennett could stay open without accreditation.

That’s … not optimal.

I know of a couple of schools that have gone this route, and both are shells of their former selves.

One is Barber-Scotia College in Concord, which lost its SACS accreditation in 2004. The school now has just 22 students enrolled in three degree programs (business, religion and renewable energy).

The other is Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which lost its accreditation in 2002. Morris Brown at one point had 2,500 students; by 2017, enrollment was down to about 40. This great story in Atlanta Magazine explains how Morris Brown crumbled (debt, mismanagement and fraud) and how the school is trying to claw its way back to solvency (bankruptcy protection, loan forgiveness, sale of campus buildings). This Atlanta Voice story has more. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution put together this timeline of the school's history.

Morris Brown is seeking to be reinstated by SACS. But President Stanley Pritchett, the college’s leader since 2010, resigned Dec. 31.

Bennett could close.

Bennett's financial situation has been precarious for some time, and accreditation is no guarantee that it will improve.

Take a look at Bennett’s latest financials (990financial statement and annual report). There's not much tuition revenue. The endowment is small. There's a lot of debt. Last year's annual operating surplus was the first in four years.

Bennett’s financial picture got a little better this fall because enrollment increased to about 470 students. And as long as it brings in more students — total enrollment of between 500 or 600 students should do in the short term — Bennett probably will be OK. But if enrollment declines again and significantly, closing the school becomes a real possibility. Bennett simply won’t have enough tuition revenue to pay the bills without more and deeper cuts.

A couple of small Virginia colleges, St. Paul's and Virginia Intermont, closed not long after SACS revoked their accreditation. This fascinating Chronicle video shows St. Paul’s in 2014, a year after the last students attended.

Once a college closes, almost anything could happen to the campus. A Chinese company bought the St. Paul's campus a year ago but hasn't yet said what it will do with the property. A couple of locals, meanwhile, are safeguarding the college's archives and artifacts in a new museum.

Lambuth University in Tennessee had a slightly happier ending. The private school closed in 2011 after it lost accreditation, and the state of Tennessee acquired the campus. Lambuth is now a branch campus of the University of Memphis.

The N.C. A&T option

One of the rumors I heard the first time Bennett came close to losing its accreditation — and it has popped up again now — involves N.C. A&T. The rumor mill suggests that A&T will take over Bennett and … something something. The details are never clear, and no one can explain to me how exactly this is going to work.

I asked a UNC System spokesman if there is anything in state law or system policy that lets the UNC System acquire a private school; I didn’t hear back. An A&T spokesman has ignored two of my three emails asking if the university had any interest in either running Bennett or acquiring the property.

Here's my take: I doubt the UNC System will step in. Greensboro already has two state universities. I can’t see why it would seek to add a third.

But I have to believe that A&T would be interested in the property if Bennett closes. Bennett sits on about 60 acres about half a mile from A&T, and A&T wants more dorms (which Bennett has) and space to expand. Let me be clear here: I have absolutely no indication that this will happen now or ever. It’s merely one of many possible scenarios here.

And in conclusion ...

I'm not going to say I know what's going to happen because I don't. The most likely outcome seems to be that Bennett will continue onward for some time with either SACS or TRACS accreditation. But a lot can and will happen in the next few months.

If there's a silver lining here, it's this: As Gwendolyn Mackel Rice, president of the college's National Alumnae Association, told me this week, this episode has given Bennett more public visibility than it has received in years. Bennett now has the chance to talk about itself — its history, its legacy of educating black women leaders, its economic impact, its plans for the future — and find donors who will support its mission and a way forward.

"We're seeing this crisis as a challenge," Rice said. "It's an opportunity we can't waste. We're fired up."

If you want to help Bennett, click here.

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