Bennett College President Says TRACS Accreditation Would Remove 'Uncertainty'
Bennett College has been granted candidate status with TRACS, Trans National Association of Christian Colleges and Schools accrediting organization, and is on its way to getting full TRACS accreditation. School officials hope the historically Black college for women will be better positioned to attract more students.
About 90 faith-based colleges and universities nationwide are accredited through TRACS. Bennett's enrollment dropped from more than 400 students to 233 since its accreditation was not renewed two years ago by SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and School Commission over financial concerns. Bennett appealed that decision and raised more than $9.5 million over two months.
But SACS still moved to strip the college of its accreditation. Bennett filed a lawsuit against SACS and has maintained its accreditation in the meantime, as all schools are allowed to do during appeals.
Bennett College president Suzanne Walsh explains what the new candidate status with TRACS means.
Suzanne Walsh: Candidate status provides all of the same rights and privileges that are really important for us in terms of operating for our students, our faculty and our staff. And No. 1, that means federal financial aid is still available to our students and families. And then in terms of grants from the federal government, like NSF grants. We have a faculty member who just applied for a grant from the Department of Defense, we're eligible for all of those things. And then we have up to five years to apply for the final step of accreditation. And we don't know how long it will take us just yet. We only just passed the step.
Gwendolyn Glenn: Do you anticipate that it will take five years? Because I know some schools have done it in maybe two years.
Walsh: I really don't know. I mean, I think that the thing that is unknown for everyone is coronavirus. The pandemic, that, you know, they just sort of pushed you off course because you have to put your attention toward things related to the virus.
Glenn: So with this candidate status and with you continuing to pursue the full TRACS accreditation, how do you think students and parents will respond? Do you think this will help boost enrollment?
Walsh: I think it will help boost enrollment from the perspective of we don't have an uncertainty. There was an uncertainty about where are we with the SACS accreditation and where are we with TRACS process. Now that we're members of two accrediting bodies — so not just one — but we are members of two accrediting bodies, I think that that should give a level of certainty for family members. And so that will be important to them.
Glenn: So when you got the candidate status, they said there were two minor issues. What were those minor issues?
Walsh: One, expanding our hours of our health center. Two, expanding the hours of the cafeteria. So those are things that will be addressed for the next time we're on campus in person.
Glenn: How do you think this TRACS accreditation compares to SACS? Because most people have heard of SACS. TRACS is for faith-based institutions. If someone asks you how does it compare, what would you say?
Walsh: TRACS is accredited by the same organizations as SACSCOC, and that organization sets the standards. The standards are set by the U.S. government. It is the same academic standards. It is the same financial standards. It is the same everything.
Glenn: Well, one thing that I read in terms of TRACS, officials, they kind of describe themselves as a developmental accreditor and said that they focus on smaller schools that have don't have the budgets that the larger schools have. And a lot of people have looked at them as kind of like a saving grace for many HBCU's such as Paine College and Bennett College. Do you agree with that?
Walsh: I do. And and it's part of what I really appreciate about TRACS. It gives us an opportunity to really reset. I think it's really important to have these organizations that take a fresh look at small institutions. Small institutions and what's required for us to be successful may be slightly different than what's required for a large public institution. And that is part of TRACS I think does really well at looking at and helping us to think about.
There is no kind of letting your guard down. There is nothing easy about it, but it starts looking at you at a different time frame. And what I really appreciate is this allows for a reset in terms of what they look at for finances, because that's the one, that's our only thing with SACSCOC is about finances.
And so people say, "Well, wait, how did you pass this the same?" Well, it's a different time frame that they're looking at. SACS was looking at previous years to the years that TRACS was looking at. And TRACS can see that we have a steady pattern of improved financials. They also look at whether we have the ability within our financial means to be able to provide the kind of quality educational programing that we have set forth for our students.
Glenn: The SACS legal case, where does that stand? And any idea, do you anticipate when that will be settled?
Walsh: No. You know, we're we're still in litigation with SACSCOC, and I'm not sure when it will be settled. But that's the nature, I think, of a civil matter. We don't have a calendar of dates in that way. There's a lot that happens behind the scenes.
Glenn: But you do plan to continue with it? You don't plan to drop it?
Walsh: We're not dropping it.
Suzanne Walsh is president of Greensboro-based Bennett College.