Oglethorpe hopeful as leaders wait for accreditation decision

Oglethorpe University leaders will learn Tuesday if they have overcome the financial problems that have prevented the private liberal arts college from getting its accreditation renewed.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the Brookhaven institution in "warning" status for the past two years primarily because of financial concerns. With a $20 million annual budget, Oglethorpe ended its 2006 and 2007 fiscal years in the red. Warning status is the lesser of two sanctions institutions face when non-compliant.

Larry Schall, college president since 2005,  said he was optimistic about the college’s chances. Accreditation is needed for students to be eligible for federal financial aid and assures that an institution meets widely accepted standards.

The college cut spending and finished the 2009 fiscal year with a nearly $1.5 million surplus, he said. He expects similar results this year.

At the same time, Schall increased fundraising and saw enrollment grow by about 5 percent since 2005 to 1,081 students this fall.

“I think we have a very strong case for being reaffirmed,” Schall said. “We think we’re completely out of the woods, but the question is do they think we still have a finger in the woods?”

SACS can decide one of three things: reaffirm accreditation; revoke accreditation; or continue accreditation for good cause if the college improved. The final ruling could require the college to submit additional monitoring reports.

Belle Wheelan, president of SACS's Commission on Colleges, said revoking Oglethorpe’s accreditation is “unlikely.”

Oglethorpe was founded in 1835 and sits on Peachtree Road just north of Buckhead. The campus is known for its Gothic Revival architecture and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The arts center serves as the permanent home of the Georgia Shakespeare theater company.

SACS placed the college on warning status for one year in December 2007 after conducting its regular review of the institution. Last December the organization voted to continue the warning for another year, noting that while some deficiencies were fixed, financial concerns remained.

Michael Horan, vice president for business and finance, said the college slashed $4.4 million out of operations by not filling open positions; cutting spending; and outsourcing some services, including maintenance, housekeeping and food services.

Officials recouped about another $1 million by going after the tuition students owed, Horan said.

The college also increased enrollment to increase revenue. About $1 million of the college's nearly $20 million operating budget comes from the endowment. The rest comes from tuition. By admitting more students and increasing tuition, Horan said the college has been able to increase revenue.

Tuition costs about $26,400 a year now, compared to about $22,300 for the 2005-06 academic year. The college plans to ultimately enroll about 1,500 students.

The admissions office ramped up national recruiting efforts, playing up the college's small class sizes and Atlanta location. About one-third of the students come from outside Georgia. The college has gained national attention for its Center on Civic Engagement.

Applications rose from about 1,000 in 2006 to about 5,000 now. And the average SAT scores has grown by about 50 points to 1160 for math and verbal.

Schall has sent campus-wide emails to let students and staff know about SACS updates. Students said they haven’t been included in any discussions about the problems.

“I think they didn’t want us to freak out since this deals more with administration and finances instead of academics,” senior Dallas Greene said. “They’ve had two years to work on this so you’d think we’d be in good shape.”

Horan said the college is proud of the changes made in the past few years.

“This has gotten us to focus on our business model and how to be more efficient,” he said. “The worst case would be if they want to keep an eye on us for another year and we’re really not too worried about that.”