Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore is in danger of losing its accreditation and faces serious financial challenges, leaving the small private college's future uncertain.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting body for colleges in Maryland and several other states, directed Sojourner-Douglass College officials last week to "show cause," or prove by Sept. 1 why its accreditation should not be revoked.
The college's president, Charles W. Simmons, said Wednesday that officials were in the midst of a plan to rescue the institution's finances and they believed they were close to having at least one investor commit money to help.
"We have several investors that we're working with that would bring resources to the table that would help us turn it around," Simmons said. "We're convinced that in the next couple of weeks, some of these initiatives that we're working on will bear fruit."
In the show-cause order issued March 6, the Middle States Commission indicated that the college must demonstrate that it can fix its finances before its accreditation can be reaffirmed.
Court records show the Internal Revenue Service filed three federal tax liens totaling about $5 million against the college in January and February. In its 2011 federal tax filings, the latest publicly available, the college indicated that it had nearly $16 million in liabilities and $18 million in assets.
Cheryl Bailey, president of the college's alumni association, said she was "stunned" to learn of the accreditation action but was confident the administration could remedy it. She said the college is ideal for nontraditional students like her, who may have jobs or families and need to fit class into their schedules.
"Knowing the school and what it stands for, I'm sure that this is a hurdle they will get over," she said.
Colleges and universities that lose their accreditation become ineligible for federal financial aid, and few institutions will accept an unaccredited college's transfer credits. Most often close, but sometimes they are absorbed by another institution.
In 2011, Baltimore International College, a culinary and hospitality school, lost its accreditation and was ultimately taken over by Stratford University. Baltimore City Community College was placed on probation by the Middle States Commission in 2011 but had its accreditation reaffirmed a year later.
Sojourner-Douglass College was first placed on "warn" status in November 2011 by the Middle States Commission, which found its financial resources, student learning outcomes and goal-setting insufficient. Colleges typically are given up to two years to come into compliance after a warning is given, according to Middle States Commission spokesman Richard J. Pokrass.
One year later, the commission found that the college had sufficiently addressed concerns about student learning and goal setting but still needed to address its shaky finances. Simmons said the college was in the midst of trying to fix its financial difficulties when they began to mount further. The Middle States Commission gave the college a one-year extension in late 2012 to address the financial concerns, said Pokrass.
Simmons and Pokrass said the adverse accreditation action was not spurred directly by the federal tax liens filed at the beginning of the year.
The college, which has six other locations in Annapolis, Cambridge, Salisbury, Lanham and Owings Mills as well as Nassau, Bahamas, offers weekend and evening classes. Simmons said that the typical student is a female head of a household in her late 30s.
The college's enrollment declined from about 1,400 in 2010 to fewer than 1,100 currently, which Simmons attributed to students being forced to drop out because of changes to federal financial aid. The enrollment drop placed further stress on the college's finances, he said.
"We're a small institution, and we've never really operated way beyond our means," Simmons said. "This is an anomaly because of the changes in financial aid."
He pointed out that the college offers three semesters of classes during the year, instead of the typical two-semester format. Two years ago, changes to federal financial aid policies meant that students could use Pell Grants for only two semesters instead of three.
Then, a year ago, another federal financial aid policy set a "lifetime cap" of six years for students to use Pell Grants. Simmons said many students at the college had taken classes at community college or other schools, sometimes returning to the workforce between their times as students, and had exceeded the lifetime cap.
Simmons said that while the school might raise tuition, officials would not rely on that as the primary method of fixing the financial woes. He said the college has laid off 10 support staff and is in the process of moving other employees into call centers in an attempt to boost enrollment.
The college, established as the Homestead-Montebello Center of Antioch College in 1972, offers Bachelor's and Master's of Arts degrees. Tuition per semester is nearly $5,000, according to its website.
Middle States Commission representatives will visit the campus soon to speak to school officials. In the show-cause order, the commission said the college must take several steps, including developing a plan to pay back its unpaid taxes, refinance its loans, complete a sale and lease-back of property, and take other actions to get its finances out of the red.
Sojourner-Douglass College also must submit to the Middle States Commission a plan on how to accommodate its students and allow them to finish their education if accreditation is revoked. Pokrass said that if a decision is made to revoke accreditation at the commission's meeting in November, the semester will be allowed to finish normally.