Southwest School of Art Hits New Roadblock In Pursuit of Accreditation

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The Southwest School of Art is located downtown at the former Ursuline Academy.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The Southwest School of Art is located downtown at the former Ursuline Academy.

The Southwest School of Art announced Tuesday to its board, faculty, staff, and students that it would no longer be pursuing accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD).

Since becoming a four-year college of art in 2013, the Southwest School (SSA) has pursued accreditation, a necessity imposed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) within an eight-year window. THECB reviews school programs, imposes accreditation requirements, and grants Certificates of Authority for schools to offer courses and degree programs.

The benefits of accreditation, beyond the state requirements, are that students become eligible for federal financial aid. Accreditation also can affect transfer of degree credits from other institutions and applications for graduate schools.

“It’s the stamp of approval from your peer institutions,” said SSA President Paula Owen.

Owen learned in February that NASAD would pull out of Texas as a primary accrediting agency, she said. “They had a different point of view on the matter of confidentiality,” Owen said, regarding making their deliberations public as required by the State of Texas.

Thus, the school will now return to its pursuit of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), Owen said, which it had dropped in 2018.

In a 2018 letter to stakeholders announcing the change in strategy, Owen wrote that the SACSCOC requirement stipulates “that an institution does not show a deficit in the three fiscal years prior to accreditation,” and that in fiscal year 2017, the school showed a deficit in its operating budget.

Although SSA was unable to meet the budget requirement in 2017, Owen said the school is in sound financial health.

“Our overall financial condition is outstanding,” she said, with assets over $26 million and liabilities under $1 million. “So if you’re looking at the fiscal health of the Southwest School of Art, it’s excellent.”

With the 2018-19 fiscal year ending July 31, Own said she was “guardedly optimistic” that the school would meet it current budget goals, and thus remain eligible for SACSCOC accreditation before the state licensing window closes in October 2021. “The first order of business is to make sure that fiscal year 2019 is positive,” Owen said.

To achieve the overall goal of maintaining eligibility through the 2021 deadline, Owen said the school must raise $10 million in additional funding to meet stringent SACSCOC requirements.

Her optimism that the school will continue on its fundraising course to meet the SACSCOC requirement is based on the school’s reputation in its community, she said.

“We have a lot of brand equity,” she said. “People value the Southwest School of Art. A lot of people know that we’ve been a catalyst for downtown revitalization over many years. They know that we’ve developed a lot of cultural opportunities for low-income students and for artists and art educators, and we have a tremendous economic impact … so we have a lot of support.”

As to whether specific funders will help the school meet its needs, she said, “We’re working on it.”

The effects of non-accreditation on current and graduating students is unclear. Owen said accreditation does not affect the degrees that students receive.

“It’s not the degree that’s accredited, it’s the institution,” she said, “so the degree is authorized by the state of Texas.”

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