Southeastern University's Accreditation at Risk

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

Southeastern University could lose its accreditation in September for deficiencies that include financial instability, dwindling enrollment and a lack of academic rigor, according to a panel that reviews colleges and universities. Loss of accreditation would probably be a death knell for the long-struggling small private college in the District.

Southeastern's revenue from enrollment and donations is declining, according to accreditors; in the current fiscal year, the school spent $57,000 more on fundraising than it collected in gifts, according to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

The six-year graduation rate for first-time students seeking bachelor's degrees is just 14 percent. And the faculty has shrunk to just 10 members for more than 30 academic programs at a school attended by 637 undergraduate and graduate students this winter.

The school's responses to the commission's concerns "might be characterized as wish lists rather than plans," because the school is without money or other means to achieve them, according to the accreditors' statement.

Southeastern officials posted the revocation warning on the school's Web site this week and said yesterday that they plan to appeal the decision.

But in a letter to colleagues, Southeastern President Charlene Drew Jarvis said the university had asked Middle States to delay a decision on accreditation until it could transform the institution by merging with another school. The letter was obtained by The Washington Post.

The board is in serious negotiations with the GS Graduate School about a possible merger, Jarvis said yesterday. The graduate school, whose primary location on Maryland Avenue SW is a few blocks from Southeastern near the Mall, provides continuing education for some 150,000 students a year, most of them government employees.

Officials at the two institutions hope to create a school with the stable finances and large enrollment of the graduate school while offering a wider range of degree opportunities focused on public service and federal job training.

That could mean a new vision for Southeastern, said Jerry Ice, the president and chief executive of the GS Graduate School. "The federal government has approximately 1.8 million workers, and almost another 2 million that are the contractors that do federal work," he said. His students are interested in continuing their studies to earn degrees, he said.

"Both schools are excited about the possibilities," said J. R. Clark, chairman of Southeastern's board of trustees, and are considering a variety of matters related to a merger, including leadership, location, name changes and mission.

Southeastern is a 130-year-old institution founded by the YMCA. Its enrollment dropped after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the student population changed from more than half international students to almost entirely low-income District residents with full-time jobs.

Accreditors noted that they had given considerable latitude to Southeastern because of its mission to educate a diverse and underserved student population but that the same problems had persisted for 30 years.

Southeastern will remain accredited until Aug. 31. The commission requires the school to help students who do not graduate by then to transfer to other schools.

Some students are withdrawing and worrying about transferring their credits, said Niki Alston, a 34-year-old student. She said that she hopes to graduate before the end of August and that the possible sanction will not hurt her chances of getting into graduate school.

"We really don't have the money to go to another school," she said. "It's a hard choice when it's not up to you whether you stay open or not."

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