Sojourner-Douglass College’s very existence hangs in the balance as the school faces a “historic” challenge that can only be weathered with the community’s support, officials say.
“My appeal is to the public, we need their support—both financial and spiritual,” said founder and president, Charles Simmons.
Birthed during the Civil Rights Movement and based on the Freedom School model of Black self-determination, the community-based college has always faced an upward battle in carrying out its mission.
“We’ve been through struggle before,” Simmons, a former civil rights activist, said.
“We’re not the school that has all the state money and corporate money and rich donor money. We started as a grassroots movement to educate and empower our community.”
But the school’s current financial troubles, which has endangered its accreditation, is unlike any other challenge he has seen in his 41-year tenure, the 75-year-old said.
On March 6, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting body for colleges in states such as Maryland, told the institution it had to “show cause” by Sept. 1, why its accreditation should not be revoked.
The college would need to show how it planned to fix its dismal finances, which was brought about by a “perfect storm” of circumstances, Simmons said.
Two years ago, the Department of Education reduced the Pell Grant disbursement to two semesters annually—Sojourner-Douglass offers three semesters a year to help its adult student population graduate faster—resulting in decreased enrollment and a loss of about $2 million. The next year, the department put a lifetime cap on Pell Grants, which further negatively impacted the college’s student body—many of whom had staggered college matriculation—and cost the school another couple million.
“When these students drop out, not only do we lose the Pell money, we also lose supplemental funds, we lose any money the students pay out of pocket, we lose the money they pay for books…and so we accrued $5 million-$6 million in deficit over a couple of years,” Simmons explained.
And the burden of debt only grew heavier.
“All of that happened at the same time that a balloon payment became due on a mortgage on our academic building at 200 N. Charles Street. And the loan became due just when auditors were evaluating the books at the bank. They saw our financial statement, and the fact that we had lost all this money, and told the bank it couldn’t renew our loan,” the university president said.
“And, as a result of losing all of that money, we found ourselves behind on our taxes.”
The school owes the Internal Revenue Service about $5 million in tax liens, 40 percent of which is penalty and interest.
Simmons said it would take about $14 million-$16 million to pull the school out of the red, and the school had already implemented a plan to rescue its finances.
To contain costs, the school has eliminated 10 non-mission-critical positions, instituted across-the-board salary cuts and cut other expenditures, for example, the bookstore has been outsourced.
To enhance revenue, the school has put more resources and talent toward recruiting new and former students, is looking for investors to support the college and searching for a financial institution to consolidate and refinance its loans at a lower interest rate.
More importantly, Simmons said, the school is reaching out to the community for support.
“We’re a small, private school and we really have not asked for a lot of support; we’ve just been focused on serving our community,” Simmons said. “So this is the first time we’re asking for help.”
Raymond Winbush, director, Institute of Urban Research at Morgan State University, said the financial troubles facing Sojourner-Douglass are all too familiar in the current post-recession period, particularly for schools that serve the underserved.
“Sojourner Douglass plays an incredibly important role in the Baltimore community, in Maryland, and communities around the world,” Winbush said. “It has a history and strong tradition of teaching those students who did not go to college at the expected age of 18.”
The institution, which has campuses throughout Maryland and in the Bahamas, serves working adults, usually with families. The average age of the student body—which currently stands at 1,339 undergraduate and 56 graduate students—is 36-38 and it comprises 80 percent female heads-of-households.
Alumni say not only did the school boost them professionally—59 percent go on to graduate school and many serve in managerial positions, Simmons said—but also personally, as the school encourages its students to give back to the community.
“Nowhere else could I get the knowledge and awakening experience of self-determination and self-empowerment other than my college experience at SDC,” said graduate Anton Conaway, West Coast Division manager for A&A Global Industries, one of the nation’s largest merchandise suppliers, in a written testimonial. “Not only was I able to get an excellent education at SDC, I was able to volunteer and give back at the same time.”
Given that rich history of service, Winbush said, he believes Sojourner-Douglass will get the support it needs.
“Sojourner-Douglass has such an inestimable value to communities in Baltimore, Maryland and around the world that it would be an educational tragedy if it were to fail,” Winbush said. “But I have every confidence that the community will rally to its aid.”
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