Last week, officials at the College of St. Joseph learned the college could lose its accreditation as early as August, but Jennifer Scott, president of the college, said they haven’t given up.
“Me and my team are undeterred,” Scott said on Wednesday. “We are pursuing every available option to us. We’ve just accelerated our timeline.”
The school’s accreditation was placed on probation in August by the New England Commission of Higher Education. Scott said CSJ officials believed at the time they would have two years to improve their finances.
On Friday, CSJ received written notification that it has until April 1 to produce “material and substantial new evidence” of its ability to achieve compliance with the standard for a college’s financial resources as established by NECHE.
On Nov. 15, NECHE voted to withdraw the accreditation of CSJ effective Aug. 31, 2019 "with the understanding that the College will cease instruction as of the end of the Spring 2019 semester. The accreditation is continued until August 31, 2019 for the sole purpose of allowing students to complete their degree from an accredited institution," according to a news release from NECHE.
According to Scott, the biggest concern from NECHE is the size of CSJ’s endowment. In late April, then-president Larry Jensen said $500,000 remained of what had been a $5 million endowment. Most of the money was spent covering operating losses and during the attempted launch of a degree program that was expected to bring in new students.
If CSJ doesn’t provide satisfactory evidence, NECHE will move to withdraw accreditation by Aug. 31.
Scott said staff at CSJ was still confident in their three-phase financial plan, which she said is focused on a balanced budget. Scott described the phases as “stabilize, rebuild, grow.”
The fall semester is done at CSJ but Scott said students have been made aware of the latest action by NECHE. Scott said administrators at the college are developing a plan to let applying students know that CSJ’s future is uncertain.
She also pointed out an agreement between CSJ and Castleton University. If the college loses its accreditation, Castleton would accept CSJ students with the intent of seeing them through to the completion of their degrees.
“Castleton will take all of our currently enrolled students into the same or similar degree programs at the same tuition rate that they pay here,” Scott said.
The program would be available to those students for up to four years, which should be enough time for any student to finish their degree.
The college is currently accredited and remains eligible for financial aid for its students.
Scott said that the NECHE was not challenging the efficacy of the school’s educational programs.
But CSJ officials will still need to focus on financial resources to prepare for their presentation to NECHE. The primary effort will be to develop affiliations with other colleges to find ways share resources to the colleges’ mutual benefit.
“The reality that we’re facing is, we’re not the only small school that is struggling or even facing potential closure. It wasn’t even the case in the spring. There are many schools that are in our exact situation,” Scott said.
Students became aware of the financial challenges for CSJ in the spring, resulting in several emotional meetings during which college officials shared the depth of the problem. The CSJ board of trustees voted 13-3 in May to remain open.
“We’re not just fighting for ourselves but we’re fighting for a way forward that shows other schools how to do it and we’re not giving up on that. I think it would be important for someone to be able to make a statement on how concerning this is, that this is happening to small schools. I mean, who do small schools serve? They serve students who are not typically pursued or supported by other schools. It keeps opportunity and diversity of choice alive,” she said.
However, closure would have an impact locally as well with the loss of about 100 jobs. The college also supports six sports teams.
Staff at NECHE are attending a conference in Boston this week and couldn’t be reached Wednesday for comment.
Scott acknowledged that with the end of the year approaching and a deadline of April 1, CSJ staff didn’t have much time.
“Nope, it’s not. But it’s what we have and it’s what we’ll be working with,” she said.