The Inside Story of How Bennett Kept Its Accreditation Despite Financial and Legal Woes

Bennett raised nearly $10 million to prove its financial stability and save its accreditation, only to lose it anyway for reasons it is disputing in federal court in Atlanta. The court has temporarily reinstated the accreditation pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Photo from Bennett College

By Merdie Nzanga, Howard University News Service

The music director at the Alfred Street Baptist Church was a good person to be in a good place at a very important time. And she did something especially beneficial for her alma mater, Bennett College.

When Joyce Garrett heard that Bennett could lose its accreditation if it didn’t quickly raise $5 million, she turned to her pastor. Alfred Street Baptist, a two-centuries-old institution in Alexandria, Va., has a host of HBCU alumni in its congregation, and a soft spot for those schools in its heart—and in its budget, too.

The church gave $50,000 to the tiny, all-women’s college in Greensboro. N.C.—one of the largest community contributions to a two-month fund drive that brought in nearly twice the amount targeted.

Bennett’s vice president for institutional advancement offered a hearty amen to the church’s generosity, and particularly some of those behind it. “Our alums weren’t deep in pockets, but were strong in influence,” Danny Gatling said on a recent visit to the nation’s capital.

In a matter of just two months, Bennett raised nearly $10 million to prove its financial stability and save its accreditation, only to lose it anyway for reasons it is disputing in federal court in Atlanta. The court has temporarily reinstated the accreditation pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

Half the money that the “Stand with Bennett” campaign took in came through efforts like those at Alfred Street Baptist—individual donations from alumnae like Garrett, their families, and friends. The average gift from thousands of donors was $50-$75, Gatling said.

But there were big givers, too.

The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority gave $100,000; the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, $31,000; and the brothers of Omega Psi Phi, $20,000. Singer Kwanza Jones, whose mother and an aunt are Bennett graduates, donated $1 million. So did High Point University, which like Bennett has historical ties to the United Methodist Church.

Papa John’s Pizza contributed $500,000, as did a North Carolina foundation linked to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco family.

Jones, a Princeton University alumna, explained her family-affair contribution this way:

“I am a very proud African American woman who wears my crown. I am a queen that was raised by queens. I am a queen who knows other queens lift other queens. They raise kings. They raise the world. They elevate everything,” she said as she announced the gift from her and her husband. “So that is the foundation of why my mother said, ‘You know, you all should give to Bennett’.”

Bennett’s success in what school officials characterized as a do-or-die effort drew attention to a dilemma it shares with many other HBCUs—especially private ones—as well as with other small, private liberal arts schools around the nation, Brian K. Bridges, vice president of research and member engagement for UNCF, said in an interview.

Gatling agreed. “Bennett’s issue is not unique, it’s [just] getting so much attention compared to other schools,” he said. “I think [in] this, day when we’re focused so much on the #metoo movement, women’s rights, and women’s color, losing one of the only two institutions that were created for women of color raised this visibility…”

The core of a recurrent financial problem for Bennett is that the college is more dependent than most on tuition, fees and even personal gifts from families on shaky financial ground, who struggle to pay even relatively modest money to send their children to a better school, which itself lacks the endowment dollars to more easily make its own ends meet.

Gladys A. Robinson, the chair of the board of trustees of her alma mater and a North Carolina state senator, said the Great Recession seriously diminished the fragile wealth of Bennett families and their communities.

“We are disappointed that [the accrediting panel] does not seem to understand the issue of HBCUs,” Robinson said in the midst of the campaign, “and especially an African American woman’s HBCU that continues to survive and strive and improve, regardless of economic situations.”

More than half of Bennett’s annual operating revenues of about $15 million come from tuition and fees, and gifts and grants.

Yet, the school needs to keep its costs affordably low. For instance, Bridges of UNCF said, Bennett cannot charge more than Harvard for tuition.

Tuition and fees at Bennett are about $18,000 a year, while the cost is $50,000 at Harvard, which 20 years ago effectively merged with Radcliffe College, its former women-only counterpart.

Radcliffe was one of the elite Seven Sisters women’s colleges. So, too, were Smith College and Bryn Mawr, which remain all female. Smith charges $52,000 a year, and Bryn Mawr, $44,000.

Bridges said a school like Bennett also must compete for students with other HBCUs that receive public funds, and with predominantly white schools offering more educational opportunities to black students than were possible years ago.

North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU a stone’s throw from the Bennett campus in Greensboro, is $20,000 for non-state residents, and less than $7,000 for North Carolinians; down the road from Greensboro at Winston Salem State University, another HBCU, the costs are about the same as at A&T.

At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), a predominantly white school near Bennett, tuition, and fees are $22,000 for out-of-state students and $7,000 for Carolinians. UNCG has more than five times as many black students as Bennett has students overall.

UNCF’s Bridges said Bennett has one of the smallest endowments of any HBCU, and many of its alumnae are more likely to live in the South, where earnings are lower. The small endowment is what limits the college’s ability to provide financial assistance, he said and makes its students and their families—as well as Bennett’s ongoing operations—more vulnerable to ups and downs in the national economy.

Some 97 percent of the college’s students need financial help, according to Bennett’s Gatling. What they cannot get from the school, they mostly must borrow.

Ninety percent of black college students nationwide take out loans to pay for college, compared to 70 percent of their white counterparts, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported.

The bad years for the nation’s economy were especially bad for Bennett. Its enrollment was 780 in 2010. In 2017, it was 493, a drop of 37 percent.

There were six years of annual losses in its operating budget, including in 2014, when Bennett came up $2 million short on a budget of about $19 million. Some employees were laid off, and some academic programs were cut. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/12/14/why-bennett-college-losing-accreditation-while-st-augustines-university-keeping-it

In December of 2016, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges placed Bennett on probation. Two years later—last December—it revoked the school’s accreditation.

Things may be looking up for Bennett on at least two fronts.

The Women’s College Coalition said that first-year enrollment among its 38 members rose from 9,000 in 2014 to 13,000 in 2017, The New York Times reported earlier this year.

There also may be a new interest in both HBCUs and women’s colleges as ‘safe space’ oases in hostile climates, the newspaper said, and some see women’s schools as better environments in which women can develop their potential.

Bennett says it has received twice as many applicants for the upcoming school year as normal. It had projected a $700,000 budget surplus for the current year, on top of a $461,038 surplus the year before.

Despite the success and spotlight of the “Stand with Bennett” campaign, the college does not consider itself out of the financial woods. “To transform the institution, we probably need about $50- to $60 million,” Gatling said.

“While we don’t like how we got the visibility, it has really caused people to start to look at the small schools and their existence,” he said. “We want to take the lessons we learned and help other HBCUs. We’re wanting to work with other institutions big or small, to approach some different ways of fundraising.”