Baltimore College Fights To Keep Accreditation Status

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TRNN speaks to a faculty member from Sojourner Douglass College, which is facing financial shortfalls due to the Federal Pell Grant and the Parent PLUS loan

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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: On Thursday, February 19, Sojourner-Douglass College lost their accreditation due to financial shortfalls. Supporters say the college that serves mainly African-American, low-income students in Baltimore who rely on financial aid, was hard hit by a 2011 rollback in the federal Pell grants. A 2014 study done by the United Negro College Fund predicted that changes would disproportionately impact low-income students and historical black colleges and universities, in turn draining resources from these institutions.

We reached out to the Middle States Commission and the Department of Education for a statement, but they had not responded by the time of publishing.

I sat down with a faculty member from Sojourner-Douglass College to talk about the administration’s fight to keep the schools’ accreditation status being revoked.

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CONWAY: Kareem Aziz is the institutional and planning director for the college, and he’s going to share with us today the plight of that particular college.

Please join me in welcoming Kareem Aziz.

KAREEM AZIZ, INSTITUTIONAL AND PLANNING DIRECTOR, SOJOURNER-DOUGLASS COLLEGE: Thank you very much.

CONWAY: Tell me what’s happening at the school, Sojourner-Douglass, right now.

AZIZ: Well, right now, Sojourner-Douglass College, which has been in existence for 42 years here in Baltimore and around the area, is facing the challenge of its life. We have experienced a decision by the accrediting agency that governs this region of the country, whereby they have determined to withdraw their accreditation from our institution. And this in and of itself can be a life-threatening consequence. It is a decision that we are in the process of appealing and believe that we have solid grounds for that appeal, but it is a situation that is also not isolated to just our institution.

The decision to withdraw the accreditation was predicated on an assessment that said that we did not meet one of the 12 or 14 standards that the Middle States defines as what all colleges and universities need to comply with. That particular standard had to do with our financial resources. And it did not have to do with the quality of our academic program or our governance methods or whether or not students are getting the services and supports they’re supposed to receive. It had to do with our financial resources. And the conditions that have been placed on us, the hoops we’ve been required to jump through, have been, in our judgment, quite subjective–and somewhat unfair, if you would. And we can get more into just what that means.

CONWAY: Yes, I would like to know. What does that mean?

AZIZ: Well, in 2011, we were seeking the renewal of our accreditational standards the way–what’s called a periodic review report. And at that time, a number of other factors that have been affecting black colleges in particular, small colleges a general–.

CONWAY: The crash of the economy.

AZIZ: Certainly the crash of the economy, coupled by changes in the way federal regulations were being applied for financial aid. Students that were previously given the opportunity to earn Pell grants for as many as 18 semesters were cut back to 12 semesters. So that immediately impacted on our students, because so many of our students are themselves transferred. These are–our average age–we primarily serve an the adult population. The average age of our student population is about 37. We also serve a poor population. Medium income of our entering students is about $20,000. Medium income.

CONWAY: That qualifies them for Pell grants?

AZIZ: Pell grants and a lot of other things.

CONWAY: Okay.

AZIZ: You know?

CONWAY: Yeah.

AZIZ: So they’re eligible for the Pell grants economically, but these are also folks who may have attempted school any number of times in the past before they finally settled with a place that came really help them.

CONWAY: Oh, and used up their semesters.

AZIZ: Exactly. So a lot of our students who had previously been able to count on another six terms of study all of a sudden found that money for that additional six terms or–what it amounts to is about three years of opportunities to have their aid, their tuition supported. A lot of that time was no longer available to them. Other things were changed in the federal regulations associated with the availability of loans.

CONWAY: Okay.

AZIZ: And the kind of creditworthiness tests that began being applied to students and to parents with the parent-plus loans.

CONWAY: Let me jump in here, because I thought that–under the Obama administration, I thought they had made the long process for students, especially indigenous students, easier. Are you saying that those regulations is making it more difficult?

AZIZ: These relations have impacted greatly our schools in particular. Morgan had a situation where they were going to lose something along the lines of 200 to 300 students that just were not able to meet their tuition. They had to go out and raise money to supplement those students’ tuition and make that kind of money available because the loans that they had previously been able to get they were no longer able to get. Morgan is paid or it receives resources from the state based upon the number of students that it serves. That 200 to 300 students gone would have cost them $5 million in their operating budget and would have been–we’re talking about a few hundred thousand dollars worth of tuition fees that were involved there. So this is just one example. Clark Atlanta, I think, had about 200- or 300-student loss as well. Other schools all around the country began experiencing the same kind of direct, immediate problem with their students being able to pay for their education as a result of these regulations that were brought and put into effect without public comment, without public notice, without folks being aware.

And yes, it is quite curious that this would have happened under the administration that we would hope for different kinds of benefits, but this is where we stand.

So black colleges across the board have been greatly affected by the changes in federal financial aid, greatly affected by the changes in the kind of loans and services that their students would be able to get, and it has been–had a devastating effect on any number of schools.

Going back to Sojourner, the compound effect of these regulatory changes meant an immediate drop in the kind of cash flow we experienced with our operations. So, as our students’ enrollment began to decline, we had to do a variety of adjustments and changes in terms of our operations. Different kinds of issues emerged in terms of payments on past debts and taxes and other kinds of dynamics that became a perfect storm of problems that hit at the same time Middle States was taking a careful scrutiny of our operations.

We presented the case for our effectiveness, how well we’re doing and how we’ve been able to manage the services that we provide to the community. They came back to the financial issues and says, well, you’re not debt-free. So, well, you don’t ask anyone else to be debt-free. Why is that a requirement for us? Well, we don’t agree with your projections. Well, our projections were based upon our experience. We’ve historically been serving these many students with these many programs, generating these many graduates. Well, their determination was that we did not have the resources that we needed to keep ourselves afoot. We argue that that’s not the case at all, that we’ve faced bad times before. In our community, we know how to make a way out of no way, sense out of nonsense, so that we have the ability to manage and restructure and readdress. However, with the threat of loss of accreditation, that just pulls us out of the game of receiving any kind of support

CONWAY: From the state educational.

AZIZ: From the federal government in particular.

CONWAY: Okay. Alright.

AZIZ: You know, our students would not be eligible for financial aid.

CONWAY: So it’s like a double whammy.

AZIZ: It’s of tremendous effect. And the–ultimately, 95 percent of our students rely on financial aid to support their education at our school. And so that is the effect that this, the threat that this offers to our very survival as an institution. And this is the travesty of the circumstance. And we’re arguing that this is such an extreme situation. Well, who else is being held to this standard? And as we looked and the NAACP joined us in a examination of data available on higher educational institutions, that is publicly available through the IPEDS National Center for Educational Statistics, and we looked at all the schools in the Middle States region, of which there are over 1,200 private schools. Of those, how many lost money last year, if that’s the criteria? You know? And we found about eight or nine other schools that lost $1 million or more in the past operating year.

Now, what was the five-year history of those schools? You know, how have they done over the past five years? And we found that those schools, most of which had significantly more loss over a longer period of time than Sojourner-Douglass–however, none of those schools, with the exception of Harrisburg University, received any kind of penalty or sanction, let alone threat of an actual removal of accreditation. Only Sojourner-Douglass. And it was rather curious. Why Sojourner-Douglass in this mix? And this, of course, was part of the basis for our appeal. This is unfair treatment.

CONWAY: Well, let me just open up the idea. I know some years back the historical black colleges were filing suit against the state education department because they were being underfunded relative to the fundings that were going to white colleges and other colleges that seemed to have been some sort of a covert attack on those colleges in terms of not getting the funds necessary, and at the same time talking about their management and talking about how they comported theirself in terms of graduate students. Do you think Sojourner-Douglass might be part of that kind of process that’s taking place against the other colleges?

AZIZ: These are not new issues to institutional survival in our community, that our institutions have emerged in the first place under duress without the sanction and approval of those who seek to place us in a less than advantaged situation, that it serves somebody’s benefit for black folk to be poor.

CONWAY: And uneducated.

AZIZ: And uneducated. And those beneficial interests have always sought to deny us whatever it was that is our due.

Those five black colleges, HBCUs in Maryland that came together [said one. (?)] But they’re not seeing the benefits.

Now, I can certainly attest to the fact that there have been major investments in Coppin, in Morgan, Bowie, UMES. All of those schools have seen significant upgrades in their physical plant and programs, services. And those are things to be applauded. But when you go to the nearest college next to them, you’ll see the same investment tripled, quadrupled, so that this notion of our schools doing good–and Sojourner-Douglass by virtue of the fact that we did not come into existence in until 1980 as an independent institution, aren’t able to qualify as a HBCU, as a historically black college. We are a predominantly black-serving institution and can participate in some programs by virtue of that, but we’re not even able to benefit with the resources that other schools have been getting.

CONWAY: Okay. In the interests of time, tell me what the public can do to assist. Or do you have a plan going forward to kind of try to save this important institution?

AZIZ: Well, one of–the principal piece is to encourage our alumni, our students, our faculty, and others throughout the community that are aware of the college to stand tall with us. Right now we do need your support. We need your support. We need the voices of our community to come forward and acknowledge the importance that Sojourner-Douglass College has and has had, has been, and should be providing to our community.

CONWAY: Okay. Thank you for joining us, Kareem Aziz.

AZIZ: Thank you very much. It’s been a joy to be here.

CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.