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Social media campaign helps save one of the last historically black women's colleges

Bennett College, one of only two all-women's historically black colleges, beat a fundraising goal of $5 million in a last-ditch effort to save its accreditation. On Monday, Bennett announced it had raised $8.2 million through its #StandWithBennett social media campaign that garnered the attention of celebrities, alumnae and others who rallied to help the school.

Bennett, in Greensboro, North Carolina, was facing the prospect of losing its accreditation last month due to financial instability. It's a problem shared with other private HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), which have long been underfunded. If the school were unaccredited, Bennett would lose access to federal financial aid and student's degrees may not be recognized.

According to Bennett College president Dr. Phyllis Dawkins, more than 11,000 donors chipped in to help the school. Donations included a $1 million gift from from High Point University, $77.25 collected in quarters from students at the Erwin Montessori elementary school, and a $20 bill handed over by a man who walked into the school's business office.

Bennett College President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins accepts a $1 million donation from High Point University President Nido Quebin. WFMY

Jussie Smollett, the actor who portrays Jamal Lyon on "Empire," wore a "Stand with Bennett" T-shirt in a Twitter post, prompting some of his fans to donate. Smollett was in the headlines last week after he said unknown assailants hit him, poured a chemical substance on him and put a rope around his neck.

A chorus of HBCUs including Spelman and Morehouse rallied behind Bennett as well, with students posting photos on Twitter with the #StandWithBennett hashtag.

"The universe of these schools came together to say 'we can't lose another HBCU'," said LaDaniel Gatling, Bennett's Vice President for Institutional Advancement, who is among the team leading Bennett's move forward.

According to Gatling, Bennett had a history of debt for the past 12 years which was exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis. With the school unable to show financial stability, its accreditor, the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), voted Bennett out of membership, saying its probation couldn't be extended for a third year.

"When you are about to lose what you have -- it makes leadership and stakeholders think differently and say, 'hey, we gotta stop going here'," Gatling said.

The college's only option to remain with SACS was to appeal the decision, which they did last month. Bennett will remain an accredited institution until a hearing in February that will decide its status. Until then, Bennett set a deadline to raise funds to prove in the appeal that they can manage to stay afloat.

HBCUs have a history of being underfunded and face discrimination in public and private funding, said Dr. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. While many private HBCUs such as Spelman are thriving today, decades of lower funding, along with alumni with less access to wealth, means that these schools typically have smaller endowments.

"If you've been underfunded for the majority of your existence you are not going to have the same funding as other colleges," Gasman said.  

Gasman has written that 74 percent of HBCU students receive Pell Grants, a rate that reveals widespread financial need. Many students at schools like Bennett are the first generation in their families to go to college, and look for schools that offer strong scholarships and financial aid.

Last academic year, Bennett started offering institutional full-ride scholarships. Princess Bush, a sophomore, received one her freshman year. Bush is majoring in biology and hopes to attend medical school or pursue a PhD. When she first heard about Bennett's financial distress, she wasn't sure how to feel because transferring was not part of her plan.

"I figure that could be an issue because programs do require a certain accreditation," said Bush.

Bush said she was attracted to Bennett because of its history in educating black women, which includes a strong sense of community in its student club life and academics.

"At this point I've decided to just wait and see what the end is going be," she said.

There has been a large uptick in freshman enrollment in HBCUs over the past five years, which some scholars have dubbed the "Missouri Effect" following student protests that erupted over racial tensions at the University of Missouri. Freshmen who have been asked why they chose an HBCU have pointed to the cultural climate in the country and a sense of increased racism, saying HBCUs are a safe place to turn.

"HBCUs are being looked at not only an educational environment but as a safe learning environment," Gasman said.

In its social media campaign, Bennett used its history in picketing against segregation during the civil rights movement to communicate to donors the importance of its fight to stay alive and relevant today.

Gasman said she has never seen a college about to lose its accreditation rally so much support through social media. She believes HBCUs need to start using social media more to relay to all communities their history and uniqueness.

"It was beautiful how the alumni rallied around the institution. They have to keep doing it. They have to continue to do that. Otherwise it doesn't work," Gasman said.

Another private HBCU, Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina, just got its accreditation from SACS extended after it was put on probation for financial reasons. The  Greensboro News and Record reports the school invested $1.7 million into a large restructuring campaign.

However, other private liberal arts HBCUs have struggled to keep their accreditations. Last year, a judge ruled against Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, in a lawsuit that meant the college would lose its accreditation with SACS. Paine turned to the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) for accrediting instead, which gave the school full accrediation status. Earlier this month, Paine was able to keep its accreditation with SACS and is currently with both SACS and TRACS. 

Bennett submitted a new report to SACS to show how it will use $8.2 million raised to reduce its debt. Bennett's Board of Trustees created a Re-Engineering Committee to change its business model, evaluate academic programs, and increase scholarships to attract more competitive students. Gatling said Bennett hopes to stay with SACS because of the prestige. However, if Bennett loses its appeal he said they "have taken steps" to look for accreditation elsewhere.

Despite this outpouring of support for the school, Belle Wheelan, president of SACS, said Bennett still needs to prove to an appeals committee on February 18th that it will have a sound financial plan moving forward.

Wheelan said the fundraising and awareness campaign serves as an "awakening" for alumni of HBCUs to contribute to their institutions after they graduate.

"I think this indicates that every dollar matters," said Wheelan.

Meanwhile, Bennett Belles -- as the women of Bennett College call themselves -- are rejoicing in their fundraising victory. The current Miss Bennett College, Brooke Kane, in her sash and tiara, addressed the press conference at Bennett's chapel for the fundraising announcement before ringing the campus bell, another Bennett tradition.

"Belles are strong and they will never stop historically ringing." she said. "And a Bennett College crown tilts for no one."

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