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OVU placed on accreditation probation

University president says financial, enrollment issues being addressed

A –Ohio Valley University was placed on probation this week by its accrediting authority over concerns about the school’s financial status and enrollment numbers.

The school has a year-and-a-half to address the issues before a planned evaluation in December 2021 and vote on whether to remove the probation tag the following June. OVU President Michael Ross said they’re already working to make that happen.

“Bottom line, it’s financial in nature,” he said. “We have put just so many positive things in place over the last 18 months.”

The Higher Learning Commission, an independent accreditor of higher-learning institutions in 19 states including West Virginia, issued a letter to OVU this week saying the school was not in compliance with the requirement that its “resource base supports its current educational programs and its plans for maintaining and strengthening their quality in the future.” The letter says OVU’s net assets for 2019 were $4.7 million short and the school has not posted positive assets in the last five years.

The letter says the school met another requirement related to enrollment, “but with concerns.

“The institution continues to report enrollment declines as related to retention,” the letter says. “The institution showed a 55 percent overall retention rate fall-to-fall in 2019 after averaging a 70 percent overall retention rate fall-to-fall for five of the preceding six years. In addition, from fall 2019 to spring 2020, undergraduate enrollment declined by 17 percent.”

Total head count for this spring was 233 students. The goal for fall enrollment is 350, but the letter questions OVU’s ability to meet that target, particularly given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Ross, who took the reins at the school a year-and-a-half ago, said rumors that the school was going to close had a negative impact on enrollment and retention.

“Our retention rate dropped dramatically because of that,” he said.

Before the Higher Learning Commission conducted a focused visit at the university last fall, an Enrollment Management Council was established to address related issues cooperatively at a variety of levels, rather than individually, Ross said.

On the financial side, efforts are being made to address short- and long-term financial stability, he said. No expenditure is made unless it meets the qualifications of contributing to student success, meeting the needs of faculty and staff and meeting the university’s mission, Ross said.

“It’s those three things that are our guiding principles,” he said.

OVU secured a one-year forbearance on its four bonds, for which the outstanding debt was about $14.8 million in the fall of 2018, the letter says. Ross acknowledged there’s no guarantee what happens after that period but it’s another step toward improving the university’s financial picture.

“We know what work we have in front of us, and we’ve already made most of the improvements,” he said.

The university has a coal lease on the books worth $15 million, the letter says, but recent projections indicate extraction might not begin until 2026. In May, OVU entered an agreement to receive additional coal reserves, a portion of which could be exchanged to be released from a bond guarantee, it says.

The letter notes the school’s reliance on student-athlete enrollment, with 226 slots available and a projection of 25 to 45 returning non-student athletes and 60 new non-student athletes for its goals.

“Given the current pandemic and questions about athletic training and competition, the institution’s reliance on a high percentage of student athletes is cause for concern,” it says.

Ross said the university will continue to provide athletic opportunities for students, “but we’re also pushing to increase the number of non-student athletes.”

When it comes to recruiting during the pandemic, Ross said OVU might actually be in a good position.

“Our small nature lends perfectly to us being able to adapt to the whole COVID-19” situation, he said. “We can social-distance 6 feet apart in a classroom,” and students can be assigned to private dorm rooms.

Ross emphasized that although the university is on probation, it is still accredited.

“This has nothing to do with academics. It doesn’t affect our students in terms of credits or their degrees,” he said.

In a public disclosure of the accreditation status change, the commission says that because the school is still accredited “in most cases, other institutions of higher education will continue to accept the institution’s credits in transfer or for admission to a higher degree program.” It recommends students contact any institution they plan to attend to understand their policies.

OVU is required to make a filing with the commission by October 2021 regarding the steps it has taken to address the issues that led to probation. A comprehensive evaluation is planned for December 2021, in which a team of peer reviewers will make a recommendation on whether probation should be removed or other action taken.

The commission’s board will then vote in June 2022 on whether to remove probation or take other steps, up to and including withdrawal of accreditation.

OVU was previously on probation and removed in November 2013 after the school updated policies and procedures to make the board more engaged with reviewing the school’s performance.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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