Sojourner Douglass College is facing a fight to preserve its accreditation after changes to the federal Pell grant program in the earlier part of the decade caused significant declines in funding and enrollments, leading to budget shortfalls. Dr. Charles Simmons, president of the college, tells the AFRO that while he is confident Sojourner Douglass can win its appeal hearing in Feb. and preserve the accreditation it lost last Nov., he feels that the school has not been treated the same as other, traditionally White institutions (TWIs) in analogous or worse financial shape by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the body that oversees the accreditation process.

Sojourner Douglass was originally established in 1972 as a branch of Antioch College, which is in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and became an independent institution in 1980, according to Simmons. The college, located in east Baltimore, mostly serves working adults (most of whom are female heads of households) and has organized its academic calendar to make it easier for adults, with their incumbent family and work obligations, to complete a degree program.

Dr. Charles Simmons, president of Sojourner Douglas College.

The school offers three semesters per calendar year, so that a full-time student could finish what would traditionally be a four year bachelor’s program in three years, says Simmons.

The U.S. Dept. of Education changed its rules concerning Pell grant (education grants for low-income students) distributions for the 2011-12 academic year, allowing only two disbursements per year rather than three. Sojourner Douglas lost $5 million in federal student aid as a result of this change.

The Pell grant was also limited to a total of 12 semesters (equivalent of six years), down from the previous cap of 18 semesters, on the reasoning that one should be able to complete a four year degree in six years.

“Many of our students are transfer students,” explained Simmons. “They start at the community college, they may stop out to get a job, they may stop out to get married, they come back, they may stop out to have a child, so we had a number of students who were transfer students, and so we had a number of students who had reached that 12 semester cap, so we lost another $2 million.”

By the end of fiscal year 2013, Sojourner Douglass was facing an over $5 million budget deficit as a result of the changes to the Pell grant program. This occurred just as the college was required to submit a periodic review report to MSCHE, demonstrating that they continued to meet the commission’s standards for accreditation.

At this point, two things occurred according to Simmons. The bank that holds the commercial mortgage on one of Sojourner Douglass’s buildings saw the revenue shortfall caused by the changes to the Pell grant program and called the mortgage due rather than renewing it, creating a further debt obligation for the college. At the same time MSCHE was reviewing Sojourner Douglass’s continuing accreditation-worthiness, and seeing the revenue shortfalls and debt obligations of the college, determined that Sojourner Douglass had failed to meet the commission’s standard on fiscal resources and informed the institution that their accreditation would be revoked if it could not demonstrate that its operations were fiscally sustainable.

Sojourner Douglass had to respond to six items in order to avoid this impending loss of accreditation, and while the college was able to satisfy most of the items, it was held back by the inability to complete a sale-leaseback agreement—in which an investor would purchase one of their buildings, relieving the college of the debt it owed on the property, and then lease it back to the college for continued use—because the investor would only agree to the sale-leaseback on the condition that Sojourner Douglass was fully accredited to ensure that the investor would have a viable, long-term tenant.

MSCHE, however, wanted the sale-leaseback agreement completed prior to renewing Sojourner Douglass’s accreditation, and though MSCHE was informed that the sale-leaseback would be completed upon renewal of accreditation, MSCHE revoked that accreditation nonetheless, effective June 30, 2015. The school now faces an appeals hearing on Feb. 2, in Philadelphia.

“We’ve been in operation for 42 years, we’ve served the community well,” said Simmons.  “This act to remove our accreditation was not based on academics, we’ve satisfied all of the academic criteria. Our students do well, our students graduate, they get good jobs; they’re in management positions throughout the state. So this is all just finance.”

The Baltimore City NAACP is assisting Sojourner Douglass in its appeal of the MSCHE decision and looked into other, similarly situated, institutions and found that MSCHE has renewed accreditation for at least eight schools facing similar or worse fiscal deficits, including one school with a deficit of $47 million, all of whom are TWIs, according to Simmons.

“It appears that we’ve been treated differently,” said Simmons.

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City NAACP, indicates that Sojourner Douglass is the only institution founded and run by Black people among those the NAACP looked at with similar financial issues, and was also the only one whose accreditation was revoked.

“Even though some of the other schools have a lot of African American , they’re not run by African Americans, so that makes a difference,” said Hill-Aston.  “A lot of times schools can have African American students . . . and they’re making money off the population but they’re not run by African Americans . . . So I do feel there has not been the same opportunities given and I’m hoping that will change.”

Hill-Aston says that now is the time for alumni to step up and help Sojourner Douglass with whatever contribution, regardless of size, that they can afford, as the institution works to revamp its finances and demonstrate the viability of its enterprise.

Simmons said the loss in financial aid due to the changes in the Pell grant program, and the subsequent negative publicity from the loss of accreditation have cut the college’s enrollment by almost half, going from approximately 1400 students in 2013 to 800 now.

In spite of the current challenges faced by the college, Simmons says he fully expects to win the appeal, and is encouraging students to remain with the institution rather than flee out of concern their credits or degrees will not be valid.

“We intend to continue to serve our community,” said Simmons. “The credits are still good, credits are transferable, the degree is still good. As long as we are an accredited institution—and we won’t issue any degrees or any credits, if we lose, after June 30, 2015, but any credit that any student earns, or any degree that a student earns up to that point is good.”

ralejandro@afro.com