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Education

Bennett College On The Verge Of Closing, Former President Says Broad Standards Are To Blame

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Bennett College
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Bennett College in Greensboro is one of only two all-women historically black colleges in the country, but that number could be reduced to one after the school failed to regain accreditation this week.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission (SACS) cites low enrollment and unstable finances for its decision, but a former president of the college says the agency’s standards for small schools are also to blame.

“SACS, in my opinion, has a series of unrealistic expectations for small colleges with small endowments," former President Julianne Malveaux, who served as the 15th president of Bennett College from 2007 to 2012, said. "In other words, they think that your endowment should be roughly four times your annual budget."

Bennett isn’t anywhere close to that. Its endowment is worth $15 million, roughly the same as its annual revenue for the last two years. But Bennet’s annual expenses have also exceeded revenue by about $1 million, according to the school's annual report.

"They are not always quite in touch, in my opinion, with the realities of HBCU land," Malveaux said.

Eleven years ago there was reason for optimism at Bennett College. The school completed a $50 million fundraising campaign that included high-profile donors like former President Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey.

By 2009, enrollment reached an all-time high of about 750, and there was $21 million worth of construction on campus.

But now, Bennett’s enrollment is down to 465 and the school that started 145 years ago during Reconstruction to educate recently freed men and women again faces the possibility of closing its doors.

Malveaux says SACS should be more understanding of small schools that don’t have a huge alumni base to help grown endowments. And now, she fears the agency has made it much harder for Bennett to gain support.

“Students are challenged when you see a college that looks like it’s in fiscal trouble," she said. "Do you really want to go there?"

Bennett has been an all-women’s college since 1926. It became known for its student activism in the 1950s and 1960s. The “Bennett Belles” made headlines across the country as they contributed to civil rights demonstrations, like the sit-ins at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter in downtown Greensboro.

Today, it is one of two historically black colleges that only enroll women. The other is Spelman College in Atlanta.

Without accreditation, Bennett students can’t qualify for federal loans. Bennett President Phyliss Dawkins isn’t giving up. She’s appealing the accrediting agency’s decision. That deadline is Feb. 18.