Hiwassee College will exhaust options to keep the doors open

Hiwassee College will exhaust options to keep the doors open

With 350 students already enrolled for the fall term, the leaders of Hiwassee College and the resident bishop of Holston Conference are working to regain accreditation before the end of 2009.

They’re also appealing the University Senate’s recent vote to de-list Hiwassee College as an approved United Methodist-related educational institution, due to the college’s lack of accreditation.

“I am not entertaining the prospect of losing the historic ties between the Holston Annual Conference and Hiwassee and The United Methodist Church,” said Bishop James Swanson. “I can only say if we are so unfortunate as to lose the endorsement of the University Senate, we will continue to serve The United Methodist Church as best we can while seeking to reestablish those ties.”

Based in Madisonville, Tenn., the 160-year-old two-year college has struggled with accreditation issues since 2002. After a long legal battle, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) terminated Hiwassee’s accreditation in April 2008 over concerns about the school’s financial resources.

Earlier this year, Holston took a conference-wide offering to aid the school in an April bid for accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). About 260 churches contributed $115,000, and other gifts enabled Hiwassee to reduce its debt of $2.4 million in 2004 to about $500,000 this year, according to Hiwassee President James Noseworthy.

Hiwassee was not successful in gaining TRACS accreditation this spring. However, the college has increased enrollment from 120 full-time students in fall 2008 to a projected 350 students this fall, Noseworthy said. Hiwassee logged an enrollment of 441 in fall 2007, before losing its accreditation.

“Obviously we’ve had setbacks along the way, but nothing has threatened our resolve,” said Noseworthy, who has served Hiwassee as president since 2002. “Instead of throwing in the towel, the board has said they want to move forward.”

While Hiwassee waits for the University Senate to consider its appeal at a January 2010 meeting, the school will remain listed as a United Methodist college, according to Marianne Inman, University Senate president.

The University Senate is a 25-member body of professionals in higher education that determines the relationship of academic and theological institutions to The United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline requires accreditation for United Methodist-related educational institutions.

In the meantime, the Hiwassee Board of Trustees is “encouraged” by its application for federally approved accreditation with the American Association for Liberal Education and will continue discussions with SACS, Swanson said. “Our challenge at this point is accreditation.”

‘Do everything we can’

Hiwassee has worked hard to improve its financial status as well as academic offerings, Noseworthy said. After 100 years as private, residential, two-year liberal arts college, Hiwassee is “returning to its roots” by offering four-year degrees in four areas: Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts, Pastoral Studies, Equine Studies, and Equine Science. Hiwassee continues to emphasize the first two years of college and offers a variety of associate degrees, he added.

Noseworthy also cited financial data showing that Hiwassee is “now in the acceptable range on SACS-established ratios.” Total assets of the college have increased from $12.5 million in 2002 to $14.5 million in 2008. Total annual giving increased from $1.06 million in 2004 to $3.2 million in 2008. Total donors increased from 870 in 2001 to 1,546 so far in 2009.

“We have not missed a payroll or been late on our payroll,” he said. “We are 99.9 percent current on our bills.”

“The sad thing is, we don’t owe a lot of money,” said Jim Henry, chair of the Board of Trustees and a resident of Kingston, Tenn. “But in this day and time, cash flow is everything. It’s never been an issue of quality. It’s always been how much money we’ve got.”

Now that Hiwassee has “raised enough money to be viable” and student enrollment is rising, the college leaders are driven to regain accreditation, Henry said.

Because the accreditation loss caused students to become ineligible for state and federal financial aid, Hiwassee discounted tuition to accommodate for the missing funds. If Hiwassee regains accreditation this fall, the financial aid will be received retroactively for the beginning of the academic year, Noseworthy said.

“If everything goes well we’ll end the year with a decent surplus,” he said. “If not, we’ll make adjustments to the expenditures to balance the budget.” 

Hiwassee also is negotiating with other colleges to ensure they will accept Hiwassee credits for transferring students. The list currently includes Emory and Henry College and 25 other schools.

“For the colleges that are listed, I have yet to hear from a student who was denied transfer of work after sending the necessary paper work,” said Beth Scruggs, Hiwassee’s academic dean.

If Hiwassee again fails to gain accreditation and loses its United Methodist ties, “it would be most difficult to survive without that connection,” Henry said. “But lots of people have received a Christian education from Hiwassee, and we’re going to do everything we can before we even consider closing our doors.”

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