The beleaguered Morris Brown College is attempting to raise $500,000 to erase a multi-million dollar debt owed to the U.S. Department of Education, a step that -- if successful -- could help the school regain accreditation.
The federal government agreed in May to eliminate the historically black college's $9.9 million debt, provided the school pays the reduced amount by Aug. 24. The college has raised $365,000 so far, according to a note sent to alumni this week. If they fail to meet this deadline, school officials will likely renew discussion over how to pay the debt.
President Stanley Pritchett was confident the college would meet the deadline, but through a spokeswoman declined additional comments until then.
The money represents just part of the college's more than $30 million debt to multiple creditors, but Pritchett has said repaying a piece of it will help the school turn around. The college is in the pre-application process to receive accreditation through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. The accreditation process, which can last five years, shows if a college meets widely accepted academic and financial standards.
A different agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, revoked the college's accreditation in 2003, citing gross financial mismanagement. The school lost accreditation largely because of crushing debt and financial fraud.
Morris Brown is just steps from Atlanta's other historically black colleges -- Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse and Spelman colleges. While those institutions are thriving, Morris Brown is a scaled-down version of its former self. The college enrolled about 3,000 students at its peak, but is down to 85.
Morris Brown students are not eligible for federal financial aid because of the college's lack of accreditation. Still, students have said they're getting a good education and are learning life lessons from a school that refuses to give up.
The college is facing such a "huge, insurmountable problem" they must think creatively about solutions, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
"I would hate to lose another HBCU, but they may need to think of merging with another HBCU or becoming a junior college," Gasman said.
Some historically black colleges have gotten creative, such as Paul Quinn College in Dallas, which turned its football field into an organic farm. The college is selling produce in a community with no local grocery, while teaching students entrepreneurship, Gasman said.
If Morris Brown is to survive, Gasman said all alumni must donate. So far, 433 alumni had donated $281,000, according to a note sent to graduates from the alumni association.
Other groups have rallied around the college, which was founded in 1881 by former slaves. The college has produced many of Georgia's black teachers and its alumni include the Rev. Hosea Williams, a civil rights activist.
Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta pledged to raise $100,000 to help the college reach its goal. The Rev. Marvin Moss described Morris Brown as an institution "vital to enhancing the quality of life for so many individuals." The congregation's nearly 5,000 members raised about $20,000 in two Sundays.
The agreement with the U.S. Department of Education was approved by the U.S. Department of Justice on May 26. The payment deadline is 90 days from when the agreement was approved.
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