Wilberforce University, one of the nation’s oldest historically black universities, will lose its accreditation if it is unable to demonstrate within six months its fiscal and administrative fitness to the regional accrediting agency for Midwestern and Southwestern schools.
The university, near Xenia, Ohio, has received a “show cause” decision from the Higher Learning Commission which accredits more than 1,000 colleges and universities in 19 states from West Virginia to Arizona.
Losing accreditation would make Wilberforce ineligible to receive Pell Grants, Perkins loans and other federal loans and grants that its students use to finance their education. That loss could be devastating to the struggling institution that depends on tuition to make ends meet. In 2011, for example, tuition and fees totaled $9.3 million – about 64 percent of the school’s $14.5 million in revenues.
The commission issued the ruling because of what it said were concerns over “lack of effective governance, sufficient financial resources” and the institution’s ability to “make plans” to remedy its challenges.
The commission’s decision was based on information gathered when an evaluation team visited Wilberforce in October. In a report dated Nov. 30, 2013, the team listed several problems: a contentious relationship between the school’s board of trustees and then president Patricia Hardaway, dormitories and buildings in disrepair; plummeting enrollments and revenues.
The evaluators repeatedly questioned whether the school could stave off financial collapse. They noted the school had borrowed against its endowment to make its June 2013 payroll and prevent a $2.3 million fiscal year-end deficit.
Evaluators also doubted whether Wilberforce board of trustees comprehended the institution’s precarious position. The team noted that a financially sound college should maintain four conditions: balance its operating budgets; maintain its physical assets; preserve its endowment; and develop its staff.
“The team found no compelling evidence that the (Wilberforce) Board of Trustees considered these four conditions important to maintain,” the evaluators said in their report. “To the contrary, the evidence shows that these four conditions are not being maintained and have not been for quite some time.”
The report recommended Wilberforce be placed on probation – the commission’s strongest sanction – and given until the 2015-2016 academic year to improve its circumstances. Instead the commission’s board of trustees issued the “show cause” ruling and began the process of revoking accreditation.
Wilberforce remains accredited. In order to maintain that status, the university’s administrators must submit detailed plans to solve its problems by December. 15. By Feb. 15, 2015, the school must host evaluators who will determine whether the plans are viable.
Wilberforce University president Wilma Mishoe could not be reached for comment.
The commission’s decision is the latest blow to an institution troubled by declining resources and enrollments.
The fall 2011 enrollment was 608 students, compared to 689 students a year earlier, according to the latest figures available from National Center for Education Statistics. By spring 2013 enrollment had fallen to 399 students, according a PowerPoint presentation that Department of Federal Student Aid staffers gave to Wilberforce officials in March.
According to the latest publicly available figures, Wilberforce also has been in serious financial straits. The school reported a $1.4 million deficit on its 2012 tax return, compared to a $523,000 shortfall the year before. On the same tax return, the school’s net assets declined to $3.5 million from $5.5 million.
The school’s troubles suggest a disappointing future for an institution that lays claim to being the country’s first college for African Americans.
1856, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal established Wilberforce to educate the mulatto offspring of Southern plantation owners. The school closed briefly during the Civil War, but reopened under the auspices of the AME church. Wilberforce counts opera singer Leontyne Price and civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin among its alumni.
The school’s troubles have prompted protests in recent year. In 2012, more than 300 undergraduates threatened to withdraw or transfer unless the administrators improved the dormitories and buildings.