What Happens if Paine and Bennett Both Get Their Accreditation Back?

At first sight, the headline appears like the precursor to a very bad week for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Paine College announced to attendees at its annual Presidential Scholarship Gala and Masked Ball that a lawsuit appeal to retain its accreditation had earned a stay from a federal court judge, and that hopes for remaining in SACS were alive.

It is the second miracle in exactly a week involving HBCUs and their effort to fight back having their accreditation revoked. Bennett College last week announced that an impossible two-month fundraising goal of $5 million had been exceeded by $3.2 million, thanks to an improbable national campaign sparked by hashtags and t-shirt sales, and capped off with support from a pizza chain embattled by race relations and a local predominantly white institution.

Some would look at Paine and Bennett and draw hopeful-yet-inaccurate conclusions about the value of these schools, the state of the sector and the future role of accreditation. If Paine and Bennett are reinstated as members of SACS, the headline is not that they defeated the accrediting organization, but that they performed miracles in order to avoid being thrown out by SACS.

If SACS is so harmful to HBCUs, why are the schools in jeopardy of being removed from SACS reaching for and achieving the impossible just to stay recognized by the agency? Why wouldn’t they, and other HBCUs, simply avoid the alleged maltreatment and unequal review of SACS and seek accreditation with other agencies like the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a federally-approved agency to affirm schools as fit for their students to receive financial aid, and is listed on the US Department of Education’s official list of approved regional and national accrediting agencies.

Why are dozens of HBCUs in current good standing with SACS and have been for decades, but the extremely vulnerable few with real financial problems the variable group suggesting that SACS is bad for black colleges overall?

Most importantly, why is the HBCU community so critical of SACSCOC standards, when these same standards are shielding HBCUs from an even quicker death at the hands of the US Department of Education which wants accreditors to include graduation rates and job placement as part of their reviewing standards? For all that the Department has done to support HBCUs with new rulemaking on borrower defense and financial support, accreditation reform is something SACS has fought the administration on in support of HBCUs and other institutions with specialized missions.

From a 2016 guidance ED guidance letter.

We encourage those agencies that currently have that type of metrics to consider whether additional metrics of student achievement that are accurate and effective can contribute to their standards. For example, many accreditors look at completion rates; we encourage those currently without this metric to consider adding it. Similarly, job placement rates have been adopted by many accreditors as a standard of student achievement; success in obtaining employment cannot be ignored in accrediting institutions that offer occupational programs.

Unfortunately, the definition and application of placement standards, along with recruiting practices related to them, have proven to be problematic in many cases. Agencies must assure that the job placement measure is clearly defined, so that an institution cannot claim it misunderstood the agency requirement and so that the agency is consistent in enforcing the requirement; and the agency must assure that strong processes are in place to certify the accuracy of those outcomes, as required under 34 CFR 602.18(d) and 602.19.

And a response from SACSCOC President Belle S. Wheelan and AdvancED President Mark Elgart:

As we’ve seen with the department’s heralded College Scorecard initiative, data dumps and rating systems lack any degree of nuance and force institutions to focus more on outcomes — some of which they have no control over — rather than explore the myriad underlying causes of low performance in an effort to map a path toward improvement.

Accreditation can reveal useful information about why students aren’t graduating; how, why, and when they fail; and how to make adjustments in teaching and learning, course sequencing, and other factors. But reporting on only a few outcomes provides no such useful data.

Let Accreditors Do What Does the Most Good for Students – The Chronicle of Higher Education

These areas should be enough for some institutions in the sector to take a closer look at what their relationships with accreditors really are, and what they could be. But more than this, it should force HBCU stakeholders to really consider how we all can become more nuanced about the factors which lead organizations like SACS or the Higher Learning Commission to take drastic actions like continued probation or removal.

The reality for several of our vulnerable institutions is that full accreditation does not mean sound operability. It means that at a specific moment in time and with full warning, an accreditor was able to come in and to find that students were learning, a board was properly governing a president, and that there was enough money in the bank for all of it to keep going.

If a school can’t meet all three of those core objectives, it is in jeopardy of closing.

Accreditation reinstatement does not boost enrollment for Paine or Bennett, both of which are under 600 students and working to reconcile institutional budgets still built around 700-800 students. It does not fix their physical plants, it does not reduce administrative salaries, it does not launch new programs, does not increase marketing and does not make fundraising any easier. It just means that today, they are certified as operationally sound.

Tomorrow could be a different story. The best example of this is Saint Augustine’s University, which in December drew attention as it was reaffirmed in spite of financial problems similar to those at Bennett.

A month later, amid student concerns about mold growing in buildings, employees falling through floors at apartments, outstanding debts to vendors which include a canceled waste disposal contract that has now led to an alleged rat problem at the school, and massive layoffs, furloughs and departures, SAU President Everett Ward announced his plans to retire this year.

If it weren’t for SACS in the cases of Paine, Bennett and SAU, would we really know the scope of the problems at these schools? Would they have been able to file lawsuits and to raise millions, and to get additional buy-in from church partners? For many of our private HBCUs which are silently dying until accreditation exposes their struggle to survive, is it their resilience which will save them, or accreditation serving as a publicly blaring warning horn about their layers of issues?

Accreditation is not the enemy. It is the advocate which works on behalf of our schools to painstakingly reveal just how big of a threat we are to our own survival.