GREENSBORO — Bennett College leaders say they will try to raise $5 million over the next seven weeks so the 145-year-old school can stay open.

Leaders of the private women’s college said at a news conference Thursday that they will seek donations locally and nationally. Bennett has until Feb. 1 to show its accreditor that it is financially sound.

“We are still relevant and needed,” Bennett President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins told reporters. “We will fight for our accreditation and our survival.”

Bennett learned Tuesday that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges had voted to end the college’s accreditation after 83 years. Bennett had been on probation since 2016 because of declining enrollment and several straight years of budget deficits.

Colleges that aren’t accredited can’t accept federal grants or federal student loans to cover tuition and other student expenses. Schools without accreditation often close.

Bennett has appealed the commission’s decision. The college remains accredited until a hearing that could come as early as Feb. 18.

The decision was “devastating,” Dawkins said, and Bennett students and employees had lots of questions and concerns about the ruling. But she said meetings with both groups Wednesday “ended on a positive note. It ended with, ‘How can we help this institution to survive?’ ”

Dawkins said students pledged to rally support online. They’re using the hashtag #StandWithBennett on several social media platforms.

She also said students and professors promised to return to campus in January after winter break, which starts today.

Dawkins added that she was “shocked” to hear the commission rule against Bennett because “all our metrics were going the right way. We felt we were in good shape.”

When Bennett went on probation in 2016, it had run annual budget deficits for several years. Between 2010 and 2016, enrollment had dropped by nearly half as the recession and changes to a federal parent loan program made it harder for potential Bennett students to afford the school.

About 80 percent of Bennett’s students get financial aid, according to the latest federal figures. Roughly two-thirds qualify for federal Pell Grants, which go to students from low- and middle-income families.

State Sen. Gladys Robinson, the chairwoman of the college’s board of trustees, said the African-American community lost much of its wealth through foreclosures during the recession.

“The population most impacted were African-American women — the very students and the women that we serve,” Robinson said. “Yes, we are disappointed that SACS does not seem to understand the issues of (historically black colleges and universities) — especially an African-American women’s HBCU that continues to survive and strive and improve regardless of economic situations.”

This fall, Bennett’s numbers were starting to trend up. Undergraduate enrollment rose nearly 15 percent, to about 470 students. The college finished the year with a budget surplus of $461,000, and college leaders say Bennett is on track to finish in the black for a second year. Fundraising efforts brought in $4.25 million during the 2017-18 year. The college’s most recent audit was clean.

Dawkins noted that the commission found no fault with Bennett’s students, faculty members, academics or governance. The commission declared Bennett to be short of its standards in just one area — financial resources.

Dawkins also noted that she and other college officials don’t yet know the commission’s exact concerns. Robinson said that the $5 million fundraising target is based on the college’s internal calculations of what might satisfy the commission. The college doesn’t expect to receive the commission’s formal letter of findings until mid-January.

In the meantime, Bennett will start making its pitch to potential donors. Dawkins said the college contributes $36 million annually to the Greensboro community. She added that Bennett is one of just two historically black women’s colleges in the nation and that its graduates are in high demand among corporations seeking more racial and gender diversity.

The college already has lined up some allies. John Swaine, the chief executive officer of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in downtown Greensboro, appeared at Thursday’s news conference to pledge his support.

In a statement posted online Thursday, UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund, promised to back Bennett, one of its member institutions.

“The fact that Bennett College has made significant improvements since being placed on accreditation probation two years ago is a testament to this Institution’s willingness and diligence to do everything it can to meet the standards set forth by its accrediting body and to ensure its students receive well-needed federal financial aid,” UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax said in a statement.

“Bennett College has always maintained a mission-centric culture, driven by the pursuit of academic excellence and providing its students with the best education possible. And we stand with them.”

Bennett leaders say they will send more information to the commission by Feb. 1. They hope that message will include results from a successful fundraising drive.

“It can be done. We’ve done it before,” Robinson said. “We will do it because we are committed to the education of these African-American young women and those who will come to Bennett to get an education.”

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

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