Bennett College sign

Bennett College — one of just two historically black colleges for women in the nation — came close to losing its accreditation more than a decade ago under similar circumstances.

GREENSBORO — Bennett College has been on probation for the past two years. It won’t get a third.

The private women’s college on East Washington Street faces the loss of its accreditation after years of financial and enrollment struggles and an announcement Tuesday by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Bennett President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins said Tuesday that the college has appealed the decision by its accrediting agency. She plans to appear at a hearing Feb. 18 in hopes of convincing the commission to reverse its decision.

The 469-student college will remain open — and accredited — until then.

“The door’s not closed all the way yet,” Dawkins said.

The commission put Bennett on probation for a year in 2016 and extended that probation for another year last December over concerns about the college’s financial picture.

The commission’s rules limit a school’s stay on probation to two years. Probation is its most serious sanction short of removing accreditation.

After that two-year window closes, a college gets one of two decisions from the commission: Its accreditation is restored in full with no sanctions, or it’s removed from membership — that is, the college loses its accreditation.

Accreditation is crucial for colleges and universities. Accredited colleges have shown a regional agency such as SACSCOC that they have met a long list of academic, financial, faculty and administrative standards that ensures a basic level of quality.

Without accreditation, U.S. colleges and universities can accept no federal funds — no Pell Grants, no federal student loans, no work-study dollars — to cover tuition, fees and other student expenses. Colleges that lose accreditation will shrink substantially or close entirely. Students at these institutions can find it difficult to transfer course credits, enter graduate school or find jobs that require a degree from an accredited college.

The commission announced Tuesday that it would remove Bennett from membership. A commission spokeswoman said Bennett was out of compliance with its rule requiring colleges to have sound financial resources and a stable financial base.

SACSCOC, based in Decatur, Ga., accredits nearly 800 public and private colleges and universities in 11 Southern states. Its decision on Bennett came at the end of its annual meeting in New Orleans.

Bennett College — one of just two historically black colleges for women in the nation — came close to losing its accreditation more than a decade ago under similar circumstances. Financial difficulties landed the college on probation for two straight years. But a persistent and successful fundraising effort by then-President Johnnetta Cole reversed Bennett’s annual deficits and persuaded accreditors in 2003 that the college’s financial troubles were behind it.

Bennett’s current troubles started during the recession, as the economy and a change to a federal parent college loan program made it tough for Bennett students to afford the school.

In 2010, Bennett had 780 students. Six years later, enrollment had been cut nearly in half. Bennett did at least two major rounds of layoffs to reduce budget deficits of more than $1 million a year. At least twice, it borrowed money to cover expenses until it could collect the next round of tuition payments. The president hired in 2013 lasted just three years.

Dawkins, who came to Bennett in 2015 as provost and was promoted to interim president less than a year later, appeared to be making some headway.

Undergraduate enrollment rose this fall for the second straight year to 469 students — up 15 percent from a year ago.

After recording a $1.1 million operating deficit in 2016-17, the college said it posted a surplus of $461,000 last year. The college said it’s projecting a second year of surplus of about $300,000.

Fundraising has improved. A year ago, Dawkins and Board of Trustees Chairwoman Gladys Robinson said the college set a goal of raising $4 million from its alumnae and friends. The college said it beat that target with a little more than $4.2 million in gifts and pledges during 2017-18. The college’s financial audit for the year, Dawkins added, came back clean.

“I think we’ve done well,” Dawkins said. “Apparently we need to do a little bit more.”

Before the formal hearing before SACSCOC in February, Dawkins said the college plans to reach out to potential donors, both locally and nationally, in hopes of shoring up its finances.

“We’re going to move forward and try to do some things,” Dawkins said. “We have several strategies we’re trying to activate.”

On Twitter, Bennett senior Brooke Kane put out an appeal to her classmates and alumnae: Pray for us as we appeal this decision.

“To all my other HBCU brothers and sisters,” wrote Kane, the college’s 39th Miss Bennett, “please pray for Bennett College as we go through this dark time.”

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Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

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