Martin University placed on accreditation probation


A regional college accrediting agency placed Martin University in probation, due in part to an "extremely low" graduation rate. University President Dr. Eugene White says he is confident the school will be able to fix the problems.

The Higher Learning Commission cited concerns with the university's faculty and staffing levels, student retention and graduation rates, financial health and management stability. White told Eyewitness News the probation was the commission's way of getting the university's attention, and he says they got it.

The HLC placed Martin "on notice" about problems in 2012. White, who joined the university in September 2013, says the school addressed many of the issues, but the HLC noted several uncorrected items. The board issued its probation order on February 27, 2014.

Of the problems cited by the HLC, White says, "None of those are unsolvable. The toughest one is retention and graduation."

In its probation letter to Martin University, the Commission cited a 2.6% four-year graduation rate for full-time, first-time students from 2005-2012. The six-year graduation rate for the same time was also "extremely low" at 14.3%.

Martin previously submitted a plan to the HLC to improve those numbers by about 2% a year. However, accreditors were not impressed. They called the increases "modest" and said the school didn't do enough to explain how the increases would be achieved. The probation notice also says that even though some improvement plans were supposedly implemented in the fall of 2013, the university did not provide any evidence they are working.

White says part of the reason for the low graduation and student retention numbers are the type of students drawn to Martin. Most students attend part-time and are older learners. He says many are juggling a job or two, family responsibilities along with classes, and they often have to drop out for a semester or two. He points out that the HLC holds Martin to the same standard as other colleges and universities with a more traditional population of younger, full-time students.

White says one way the university plans to improve graduation and retention rates is by hiring a new retention specialist position. That employee would be focused on following up with students who leave classes for a semester and who would work closely with students who are experiencing problems, in an effort to keep them in class.

He says another plan to help students succeed is for every student to have a mentor.

White says he is the solution to the management stability. "I'm going to stabilize that at least for four or five years," he said.

White is the fourth person to head Martin University in three years. He is the former Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent and past-president of the North Central Association, the parent entity of the HLC. White joined Martin as its interim president in September and quickly developed a long term plan for the school to make improvements. In November, White agreed to keep the job on a permanent basis.

He says the school is working to address the budget issues he says were created largely by a previous administration overestimating enrollment.

Martin relies on tuition and donations to fund the university. He says original estimates placed enrollment at 700, but only 500 students signed up for classes. That translates to a $600,000 revenue shortfall.

In order to deal with the deficit, White says he eliminated 16 positions, seven faculty and nine support staff. Those cuts prompted new concerns from the accreditation team.

Martin will be on probation for one year. By August 4, the school must submit a written progress report, and in September, an accreditation team will make another site visit. White says the school realizes how important it is for the HLC team to see improvements in the four problem areas.

White says, "We think we can get three of the four taken care of" and show improvement in the fourth, graduation and retention.

That team will then report to the HLC Board which will consider the issue at its February 2015 meeting. At that point, the HLC could extend the probation time, remove the school from probation or revoke its accreditation.

Accreditation is important to a school because it validates and academic program, and it is used for schools to qualify to receive financial aid. About 90% of Martin's students receive some form of federal assistance.

"We want our students credits and their degrees to be valid if they go to graduate school or if they transfer," White said. Without accreditation, other schools and industries may not recognize the classes or degree. A lack of accreditation could also negatively impact enrollment as students look for a school that achieves widely recognized standards.

White says at this point, classes and learning continue. Students should notice no changes in their academic work.

He also says the school is continuing to work on plans for new associate degrees and for a new School of Education.

The Higher Learning Commission accredits many Indiana schools including Ball State University, Butler University, Indiana University, Purdue University and Taylor University. The private, non-profit group says it accredits more than 1,000 college and universities in 19 states. You can check the status of schools online.

Martin University was established in 1977 and is Indiana's only Predominantly Black Institution of higher education. Martin says it offers 14 Bachelor's degrees and two Master's degrees.