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Bennett College raises more than $8 million, now set for accreditation hearing

#StandwithBennett campaign brought in donations beyond goal of $5 million

Bennett College, the first all-women’s historically black college or university (HBCU), announced Monday that it has raised more than $8 million in order to win its accreditation appeal against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and prove to the accrediting body that it is financially stable.

Bennett president Phyllis Dawkins, in front of several hundred students, alumnae and donors at Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel, said fundraising efforts from all over the country brought in financial commitments totaling more than $8.2 million. The goal had been to raise $5 million. The announcement was made to much fanfare and speeches by donors in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Bennett, along with other HBCUs, was drastically affected by the Great Recession of 2008 and the alterations to the Parent PLUS Loan program from 2010-12. Many students who relied on federal aid to attend school and receive an education were deterred based on their financial situations. According to Lodriguez Murray, the vice president of public policy and governmental affairs for the United Negro College Fund, the changes to the Parent PLUS Loan decreased the number of students attending HBCUs by 40,000.

Bennett will formally appeal to SACSCOC, which has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 18 in Atlanta. The college will maintain its accreditation while the appeal process is ongoing.

“Out of the 95 requirements that every college and university accredited by SACSCOC has to meet, only one of them is the issue,” said Murray. “It’s about the amount of money Bennett needs to show that they are a strong institution.”

Many public institutions were able to lean on supplements that were provided by their respective state governments. However, since Bennett College is a private institution, it operates strictly from tuition and fundraising and does not apply for other sources of funding. This pushed Bennett to work extensively with UNCF to help provide the historic school financial relief.

Because of this help by UNCF and the fairly new leadership of Dawkins, Bennett College now finds itself in a position to sustain its accreditation.

Dawkins said that despite the accreditation issues, 3,500 prospective students have already started applying to be admitted into Bennett for the upcoming fall semester and the institution has had a 16 percent increase in enrollment under her administration.

In addition, according to Dawkins, there has been a 36 percent increase in enrollment for new students and a 9 percent increase in the retention rate of students from the past two academic years. The school only has the capacity to enroll around 800 students and is sitting at 534 students now.

“We have to increase enrollment,” said Dawkins, who became interim president in 2016. The 2017-18 academic year was Dawkins’ first full year as permanent president. “We did a good job for the last two years. During my years, enrollment has increased slowly but steadily.”

The Dawkins administration has become a bright spot for Bennett College during a time filled with anxiety. With many questioning the school’s sustainability in wake of its accreditation issues, Dawkins has seemingly steadied the ship and has the school moving in the right direction toward financial stability.

“It is [sustainable]. We just need to change our business model,” said Dawkins. “We need to cut expenses, which we’ve already done. We’ve probably cut $4.5 million out of the budget over the last three to four years. Then we have to build our [$12.5 million] endowment. … We need to triple that endowment and continue to fundraise while improving student life.”

Dawkins said the board of trustees at Bennett College, which was founded in 1873 to train former enslaved women to become teachers, voted to put together a committee to “Reimagine Bennett College” in the near future. This committee will help serve the many Bennett Belles who contribute to the legacy and relevance of their institution.

One of those women is Brooke Kane, a graduating political science student from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, who serves as the 39th Miss Bennett College.

“This is the land of black girl magic,” said Kane. “This is the land of opportunities that surface everywhere. Here at Bennett, what makes it special is that we hold each other accountable as sisters. The sisterhood here is so strong, and that’s why I think the ‘Stand With Bennett’ Campaign has been so viral, because they understand that if you eliminate Bennett College from all the HBCUs, then you will be eliminating a sisterhood from it.”

Through Bennett’s Stand With Bennett Campaign, the college raised $3.1 million as of Jan. 29. Donations have come in from prominent businesses and organizations such as Papa John’s, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, among many others.

High Point (North Carolina) University on Friday said it would donate an additional $1 million to Bennett. That gift raised Bennett’s fundraising total to about $4.8 million.

The current campaign drew media attention in December when Bennett students posted #StandWithBennett on Twitter and Instagram and the college began selling “Stand with Bennett” T-shirts.

If the desired goal had not been reached, Dawkins said the school would have sued SACSCOC in order to maintain accreditation for its students. Representatives at Bennett College had been confident they could raise the $5 million to remain accredited. If Bennett does sue SACSCOC, it will continue to apply for accreditation through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS).

“I imagine Bennett’s future to be about students that are just ready for innovation. I promote innovation,” said Dawkins. “We just need to really reimagine how we want to move Bennett forward. We can never go back to this again.”

According to UNCF, Bennett College borrowed from the HBCU Capital Financing Program that provided a $30 million budget for HBCUs to receive loans at lower than market rates to either build new buildings or refinance existing debt. Bennett reached out to UNCF to gain assistance in paying these loans back to the federal government.

“They came to UNCF early last year and explained that they needed relief from the loans that they had with the federal government,” said Murray. “So UNCF went to Congress, and in 52 days, legislation that should have took three to seven years to become law … that legislation deferred the loans of qualified private HBCUs, like Bennett College, deferred their HBCU Capital Finance Program loans for a minimum of three years and up to six years.”

That meant that Bennett College has been completely excused from paying off its federal loan debt for six years, which started in the 2018 fiscal year.

In addition, the school was reimbursed $1.185 million on Dec. 21, 2018, by the federal government for what had already been paid into the HBCU Capital Financing Program during fiscal 2018.

Donovan Dooley is a former Rhoden Fellow and a multimedia journalism major from Tuscaloosa, AL. He attends North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University.