GREENSBORO — Bennett College leaders publicly laid out their plans Wednesday for keeping the school open and meeting the expectations of its accrediting body.
Bennett learned Tuesday that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges had extended its probation for a second year. The women’s college will keep its accreditation for now but could lose it a year from now if it’s unable to deal with chronic financial problems.
College leaders put on a positive face before reporters Wednesday. Bennett will survive, they said. Bennett will thrive.
“We’re not going to close,” President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins said. “We’re not even thinking that way.”
Though Bennett remains on probation, college leaders said Wednesday that the commission could have removed the school’s accreditation. But that didn’t happen — and that’s good news, they said.
“SACS saw the progress we had made and felt certain that we could balance our budget and grow our enrollment in the next 12 months,” said Gladys Robinson, a Bennett graduate, a state senator and the chairwoman of the college’s board of trustees.
Some other positive signs: Enrollment is up. Financial deficits are shrinking. Fundraising has increased. Campus improvements are in the works.
“We’re excited about the months ahead,” Robinson said. “We’re confident the next 12 months will be successful.”
Here are some of the key areas Bennett will focus on over the next 12 months:
Bennett has 410 undergraduates — a 2.5 percent increase from a year ago and the first uptick in enrollment in seven years.
But Bennett has lost more than 40 percent of its students since 2010. The college’s first-year classes have been shrinking, and its retention rate — the percentage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year — has been below 50 percent since 2015.
The college hired an enrollment management firm a year ago to bolster the college’s recruiting efforts. It seems to have helped.
Bennett brought in 180 first-year students this fall — an increase of 36 percent over fall 2016. Applications for next fall’s first-year class have more than doubled. The college also has sent offers of admission to nearly 700 students — compared with six at the same time in 2016.
Admissions officers are helping applicants fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the complicated form that families must complete to qualify for financial aid. The college also increased the amount of its scholarships and this fall introduced its first full-tuition scholarship.
Dawkins said Bennett is more aggressively recruiting students on purpose. Students who get acceptance letters and financial aid packages early in their last year of high school, she said, will be more likely to consider Bennett.
The college hopes to boost enrollment to between 450 and 500 students by fall 2018. Enrollment of 600 — its goal for the 2019-20 year — means the college can balance its budget without other revenue sources.
Ultimately, Bennett hopes to have 800 students on campus.
The commission flagged Bennett for being unable to balance its budget. In 2015-16, the college ran a $1.5 million operating deficit. Last year’s deficit was smaller — just $1.1 million.
Bennett is projecting that it will balance its $12 million operating budget this year and perhaps finish the fiscal year in June with a small surplus of somewhere around $250,000. Most of the money to pay faculty, staff and other operating costs comes from tuition paid by students.
To reduce its deficits, the college has cut 40 jobs through layoffs and attrition and eliminated 11 degree programs since 2014. The college has just 37 full-time faculty members and operates only three of its seven residence halls. Last fall, Bennett borrowed $500,000 to cover expenses until students paid tuition for the spring semester. The college has since repaid that money.
If revenues don’t meet projections this spring, Dawkins said, the college has a contingency plan to balance its budget that could result in more expense cuts.
Bennett alumnae contributed $1 million to the college last year — an increase of about $250,000 from previous years.
But college leaders say they need more than that. Bennett hopes to raise $4 million this year by reaching out to local, North Carolina and national philanthropists.
College leaders say they will deliver two messages to potential donors: Bennett has an annual economic impact on the Greensboro region of nearly $30 million, according to a 2015 study, and the college has a long, proud history of graduating accomplished African-American women.
“We know there’s a need for African-American women in so many professions,” Robinson said. “We produce those women.”
The money raised will go to two main purposes: to help pay the college’s expenses not covered by tuition revenue, and to close the gap between what families can afford to pay and the financial aid the college can offer.
Dawkins said students usually leave Bennett because they can’t come up with the money to pay their tuition bill. In many cases, students are only a few thousand dollars short.
More scholarships, Dawkins added, will help attract and retain more students and thus increase enrollment.
When the Southern Association accreditation body put Bennett on probation a year ago, it cited concerns over the college’s governing board. The commission, apparently satisfied with recent changes to the board, dropped that finding in Tuesday’s announcement.
The college’s board of trustees has experienced some turnover because of resignations and expired terms. Robinson, a former member of the UNC Board of Governors, became chairwoman only a year ago. Several new members are from the Greensboro area and have professional financial backgrounds.
Robinson on Wednesday expressed confidence in Dawkins’ leadership through this crisis.
“Dr. Dawkins is the right president. We decided that in July” when the college removed her interim title, Robinson said.
Dawkins, the former provost at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, was named Bennett’s provost in late 2015 and became interim president less than a year later.
Improving campus life for Bennett students is another key area.
This fall, the college extended curfew hours for first-year students and, for the first time, allowed male visitors to visit Bennett students in their dorm rooms.
The college also wants to upgrade its residence halls and reopen more of its dorms if enrollment increases. About 60 percent of Bennett’s students live on campus.