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With Sojourner-Douglass' accreditation in jeopardy, students in limbo

Theo Jones is set to graduate from Sojourner-Douglass College with a nursing degree in November, but instead of celebrating as he nears the finish line, he's left wondering if he should transfer to another school.

Sojourner-Douglass was ordered this month by its accrediting body to "show cause" or prove why it should not lose its accreditation, and Jones is one of the many students who are deeply worried about their futures. Jones said he's made inquiries to five potential employers in recent weeks, and all have asked him about the school's accreditation status.

"Even if I do graduate on time, will my degree have any levity, or will it be a napkin that I can wipe my mouth with because my school lost its accreditation?" said Jones, 25.

The college, founded as the Homestead-Montebello Center of Antioch College in 1972, is facing the most serious challenge in its history. It must prove to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education by Sept. 1 that it has a plan in place to fix its financial problems, and must develop a proposal for how its more than 1,000 students can finish their degrees or transfer their credits to another college in the event that accreditation is revoked. The decision would be made at the Middle States Commission's meeting in November.

The Internal Revenue Service filed about $5 million in tax liens against the college this year, and the college's president says he's negotiating with a potential buyer to sell and lease back its main administration building on Central Avenue in Baltimore, which he hopes will give the college a quick infusion of about $19 million in cash.

Some students and alumni are hoping that the private, nonprofit college can be absorbed by the public University System of Maryland.

Sojourner-Douglass President Charles W. Simmons said in an interview that he has been traveling to Annapolis almost daily, arranging meetings with local and state politicians and Gov. Martin O'Malley to discuss the school's future. Joining the state university system has been part of the discussions with local officials, he said.

But USM officials said in a statement that the university system "is not conducting discussions of any kind" for any college to join the system.

Several students and alumni have criticized Sojourner-Douglass' response, saying they should have been informed of the Middle States Commission decision before it hit the news, and that the communication from the administration has not assuaged their fears.

Simmons said he understood why students were worried about the college's future but thought the administration's communication to students, faculty and staff has been appropriate.

He said the school was informed of the March 6 accreditation action a week later and then sent an email to the campus community. He said he has held a campus town hall meeting, put together work groups of students, faculty and other stakeholders, and is talking with potential investors. Simmons also hopes to refinance some of the college's loans at a lower rate.

"We're trying to assure them that were trying to do everything to prevent" the loss of accreditation, Simmons said. "We've certainly been open with everything that we've been doing."

Maija Anderson, the director of the college's nursing program, said she has put the process of admitting nursing students for the fall semester on hold while the situation is sorted out. Typically about 60 percent to 70 percent of the college's students are in the nursing program or taking classes to meet the requirements of entering the program, she said.

Sojourner-Douglass College accepted 120 nursing students from Mountain State University in West Virginia when that college had its accreditation revoked in 2012, and a small number of those students remain, Anderson said.

"I'm worried about my students," Anderson said. "We all just want what's best for them."

Colleges that lose their accreditation cannot award their students federal financial aid, and in all but rare circumstances the institutions disband or are absorbed by another college.

Elliot D. Lasson, the executive director of Joblink of Maryland Inc. in Baltimore, a nonprofit that connects job seekers with recruiters, said that if the college does lose its accreditation, graduates will face hurdles in the employment process. Most federal and state agencies and many private employers stipulate that an applicant's degree must come from an accredited institution, he said, though job seekers may be able to convince employers on a case-by-case basis that their degree should be accepted if the college was accredited at the time they attended.

"The accreditation of any institution is their bread and butter of what makes them credible," Lasson said.

Jones said he applied to Sojourner-Douglass and was admitted in 2011. He's been pleased with the quality of the academics at the college, but has seen his tuition raised three times to $5,000 a semester.

"It's a really good system here, the educators are excellent," said Jones, of Baltimore. "It's just bad money management on the part of the administration."

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. The college was able to make changes to its student learning outcomes and goal-setting to satisfy the commission, but the financial difficulties remained.

The college, which has other locations in Annapolis, Cambridge, Salisbury, Lanham and Owings Mills as well as Nassau, Bahamas, offers weekend and evening classes. It also faced financial challenges in the early 1990s, when a Maryland Higher Education Commission report revealed a series of problems with the school's finances and the U.S. Department of Education made Sojourner-Douglass students ineligible for federal loan programs because of a history of high loan-default rates for the college's students.

Simmons has blamed the recent financial pressures on changes to federal student financial aid programs, which he said led to an enrollment drop that further strained the college's resources.

Talisha Hunter, who graduated from the nursing program last fall, was able to secure a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs but is concerned about the impact to her career if the college loses its accreditation. She said she attended a recent town hall meeting with about 400 others but left disappointed with Simmons' response and skeptical of the administration's ability to overcome the financial woes. A second town hall meeting this week was canceled, which Simmons said was the result of a scheduling conflict.

"I just felt like he was a stranger and didn't care," said Hunter, 37. "I'm disappointed they aren't giving students clear, concise explanations of what they'll do if it can't be fixed, and what should students do to prepare. They're not doing any of that."

LaShella Miller, who is studying for her master's degree in public administration, said she similarly wants the college to provide more guidance to students so that "we don't go into a panic and make hasty decisions because we don't know what's going on."

"If they lose their accreditation, my money has gone to waste," said Miller, 39. "I feel like I'm really back to square one trying to decide which school to go to. Where do I go? But now I have thousands of dollars in school loans that I have to pay back."

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