Morris Brown college rebuilds after accreditation restored

When Kevin James became president of Morris Brown College in 2019, people thought he was “absolutely nuts” for taking the job. The college had been unaccredited for almost two decades. It had filed for bankruptcy and was forced to sell off most of its Atlanta campus as enrollment shrank to a few dozen students. James said he had more money in his personal bank account on his first day on the job than the college had on hand.

Three years later, he feels vindicated as the private historically Black college celebrates its return to full accreditation. The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), a Virginia-based accreditor for faith-based institutions, gave its blessing to the college last week. Morris Brown students can now use federal financial aid to pay for their education and earn accredited degrees—the first time in 20 years they’re legally able to do so.

“The loss of students, the loss of land, the loss of reputation … We were in a very bad shape,” James said. “In about three years, we were able to turn the school around and prove to our accreditor, TRACS, that we are an institution of quality under this new administration.”

Timothy Eaton, president of TRACS, said the accreditor had been in discussions with Morris Brown for at least a decade. He commended the college’s efforts to “rightsize” itself in recent years—reducing course offerings and programs—to become more financially sustainable. The college was evaluated based on a range of factors, including the expertise of faculty members, best practices for financial operations and the functionality of its administration and governing board.

“The old saying is success is a poor teacher,” Eaton said. “The best teacher is failure … for those individuals who really love the institution, who love the vision of the institution, who didn’t want the institution to die—those alumni, leadership, managers, faculty, those people who really cared about the institution—quite honestly, I think they learned from the failures of the past.”

The struggle to revive the beleaguered Morris Brown hasn’t been easy, and it isn’t over. The college lost its previous accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges in 2002, when a former president and financial aid director misappropriated the US Department of Education funds. The college owed millions of dollars to the department and filed for bankruptcy a decade later. Enrollment has generally oscillated between about 20 to 50 students since the loss of accreditation, James said. The remaining students—who often stayed because of family ties to the college or an affiliation with its founder, the African Methodist Episcopal Church—had to go on payment plans, paying out-of-pocket installments toward unaccredited degrees.

Edward Smith-Lewis, vice president of strategic partnerships and institutional programs at the United Negro College Fund, said Morris Brown regaining accreditation sent an important signal to for HBCUs across the country. For many of them, being put probation or losing accreditation is a “death sentence,” because 75 percent of HBCU students are low income and don’t have the option of attending a college that can’t offer financial aid. HBCUs are heavily reliant on tuition payments, which make up a significant portion of their revenues.

Smith-Lewis said higher ed leaders watched skeptically as Morris Brown tried to remake itself and regain accreditation.

“The fact that they did it, and they did it so well and they did it so publicly, is just a point of excitement for higher education and HBCUs broadly,” he said.

Jethro Joseph, president of the college’s alumni association, said he had faith the college would return to better days. He earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting with a minor in math in 1969. Joseph described the campus culture at the time as “nurturing” first and foremost, with deep bonds between students and faculty members.

He and other alumni have been raising money to help get the college back on its feet, so regaining accreditation was a “hallelujah moment,” he said.

“I knew at the end we were going to win. I prayed a lot, worked hard, did not give up. I knew at the end of the day Morris Brown would come out on the winning end.”

But he understands accreditation is just a “rebeginning” and that the college still has a long way to go.

Smith-Lewis said when UNCF works with HBCUs struggling to keep their accreditation, one of the first steps the colleges are encouraged to take is to boost enrollment and retention rates and improve data collection in order to track progress on these metrics. College leaders are also pushed to think more strategically about how best to use their limited resources.

When they do this, “they find that they can leverage the low resources that they have to do right by students and therefore do fine with accreditation,” he said. “Some of the challenges associated with accreditation are often a response to trying to keep up with a higher education model that no longer works for low-income students or low-resource institutions.”

Morris Brown leaders are now launching new strategies to boost enrollment. The number of enrolled students—68 this spring—has tripled in the last two years but is meager compared to a prior peak of 3,000 students. While the college can’t afford to send recruiters across the country, James said alumni chapters are mobilizing to help recruit prospective students. A new vice president of enrollment management and student services was recently hired. The college also produced a promotional television commercial being broadcast across the southeastern United States. Various radio stations are running free ads on behalf of the college.

James also believes news of the college’s reaccreditation will be “our billboard.” He said dozens of prospective students reached out to signal interest within a week of the announcement.

“We’re going viral right now,” he said. “So many people are calling. So many people are emailing, saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you guys did this. I want to learn more about Morris Brown.”

The college’s administrators are already preparing to serve more students, but with a much smaller campus made up of only three buildings. Online courses will be critical to “our restoration and our resurrection,” James said. He hopes to eventually offer online degree programs. The college is also raising funds for a “complete overhaul” of its historic Fountain Hall, an iconic national landmark and academic building originally built in 1882, that is expected to cost $30 million.

Meanwhile, students will have to be guided through the financial aid process, since the college had not offered tuition assistance or financial aid advising for so long. An associate vice president of administration and financial aid hired last year to prepare for accreditation will now lead that effort.

“I knew that financial aid was going to be a huge hurdle for us,” James said. “I knew I was going to need her to lead us out of the grave, so to speak, regarding that. We lost our financial aid; We lost our accreditation due to financial aid mismanagement. So, I knew the federal government was really going to quadruple-dot i’s … when it came to our financial aid.”

TRACS will also continue to monitor Morris Brown over an initial five-year period. Newly accredited colleges are required to submit reports on their budgets and strategic plans and undergo professional audits each year. The accreditor also monitors the colleges’ enrollment and finances.

The ultimate goal is a “self-reflecting, self-improving and eventually a self-perpetuating institution,” Eaton said.

Paul Gaston, an emeritus Trustees Professor at Kent State University, pointed out that TRACS is distinctive among faith-based accreditors for its historic adherence to creationism and its requirement that institutions have faith statements that reflect “the evangelical Protestant tradition.” He wrote a book called Higher Education Accreditation: How It’s Changing, Why It Must (Stylus Publishing, 2014).

“My question would be, are institutions now seeking accreditation from TRACS comfortable with aligning themselves with that legacy?” Gaston said.

Eaton said TRACS is “unapologetically evangelical” and the fact that it accredits many strong creationist institutions is “not a secret.”

TRACS has also given its stamp of approval to a number of smaller Christian colleges with low enrollment and graduation rates, which has led some higher ed experts to question the rigors of the accrediting agency in the past. For example, at Beulah Heights University in Atlanta, only 29 percent of students graduated within eight years, and only 31 percent did so at Randall University in Oklahoma, according to the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard. These percentages are well below the national median eight-year graduation rate of 57 percent at four-year universities.

Eaton acknowledged that TRACS accredits colleges with poor graduation rates but noted that faith-based institutions admit high numbers of first-generation and low-income students, who face unique obstacles and are less likely to complete their studies. The majority of students at TRACS-accredited institutions are eligible for the Pell Grant, federal financial aid for low-income students, and a third of its colleges and universities are minority-serving institutions, he said.

“If everyone would just take the top 10 percent of graduating high school seniors or students making the 90th percentile on their standardized test, then everyone could say we’re successful,” he said. “We could all say we’re elite. A faith-based institution, we’re looking at access to higher ed. We’re looking at leveling the playing field. Next to our faith, we consider education to be one of the most uplifting movements in America.”

He also sees benefits to working with some of the hard-knock cases and cited Paul Quinn College as an example of another HBCU, previously on the brink of death, that ultimately made a comeback after accreditation from TRACS.

James insists that TRACS is as rigorous as any other accrediting agency and Morris Brown is secure in her choice. He’s now more focused on the future of the institution—which he believes is “very, very bright”—rather than its troubled past.

He wants Morris Brown to continue being the academic “haven” it once was for students and to keep “providing them with all the skills that they need to be able to go out into the world and compete and go on to graduate school and live their life’s dream,” he said.

“Now the goal is to grow the institution and to provide that education that we’re saying we want to provide.”

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