Four days before the Southwest School of Art was to submit its accreditation application to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges, President Paula Owen learned the school would no longer qualify for what she explained was somewhat “arcane accounting.”

Owen informed her staff of the situation Wednesday, and told students, including 11 seniors in the school’s first graduating class, Thursday morning. She said that the senior class will graduate as scheduled, albeit from an unaccredited school. “It is not an unaccredited degree, it is the institution that receives the accreditation.”

At least one parent expressed disappointment, but two students reached by the Rivard Report Thursday appeared to take the news in stride, noting that their education and art matters most.

In an interview Thursday with the Rivard Report, Owen said one of the requirements for accreditation is running three previous fiscal years in the black, which she believed the school had done. However, the school was required to rework the way it presented its finances to fit with standards for institutions of higher education, and with the reframing, the school learned a previous fiscal year ran a deficit.

“While our balance sheet is an indicator that most of our donors use to determine financial stability – and it is remarkably strong – what the [SACSCOC] wanted to see were our last three operating budgets. Because we had to reformat them, and even though we did not show a deficit in the old format, in the new format, one of the years showed a deficit,” she said. “We didn’t know that until we got the consultant’s report on Monday.”

Owen said the reformatting constituted some “arcane accounting” including “what qualifies as revenue, what qualifies as expenses.”

This means the inaugural class of 11 students who will graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in late April will obtain degrees from a non-accredited school. However, Owen said, this does not affect the degrees themselves, because the school still has the authority to grant degrees from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB).

“The institution wants to achieve accreditation because that is the industry standard,” she said. “That is the seal of approval from one’s peers. It is not a governmental requirement.”

Now that the Southwest School of Art does not qualify for accreditation with the SACSCOC, the school is pursuing accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD).

The school initially looked at accreditation through NASAD, Owen said, but that accrediting body requires four years completed and a class graduated before seeking accreditation. Applying through the SACSCOC would have provided a quicker path to accreditation.

Southwest School of Art spokesperson Mark Williams said the school initially projected it would receive accreditation as early as fall 2018 through SACSCOC.

The earliest NASAD could grant the Southwest School of Art accreditation would be fall 2020. If granted, Owen said, this accreditation would apply to the school and all of the degrees it has previously awarded.

“It is really the [THECB] that is the determinant of whether you can grant a degree or not,” she said. “That is the most important legal step. We did that, of course, before we had students.”

Until the school receives accreditation, students will not be eligible for federal financial aid. The school has raised funds from private donors to offer students scholarships, she added.

She said 60 students are currently enrolled in the BFA program, with 11 on track to graduate on April 29. The school contacted students Thursday morning informing them of the change in accreditation status and its plans to host a meeting on Monday to address any questions.

Janie Gonzalez, whose son is one of the 11 set to graduate, wrote in an e-mail to the Rivard Report that “for the amount it cost to send our son … as parents we are not happy with the news and our community investment.”

Gonzalez said she was aware that the school was not yet accredited when her son first applied and turned down offers from other universities. She still has questions about her son’s next steps.

Junior Josué Romero said he still feels confident in the school’s trajectory, but “it was a shift in what [students] were expecting.” The school was transparent from the beginning about the possibility of the accreditation process being delayed, but assured students it could still grant degrees, he said.

“In that sense nothing changed,” he said. “I think we all trust that our degrees matter, but more than anything else that the education is what is important.”

Romero said he believes the Southwest School of Art’s lack of accreditation should not impact future enrollment as long as the school continues to market itself well. “The artists being produced” by the program should speak for its value as well.

Freshman Walden Booker said he hadn’t checked his e-mail this week and wasn’t aware of the change. He said he knew when he was applying there was a risk that the school may not become accredited by the time he graduated, but that it was worth learning skills from the teachers he had met.

Booker said he has enjoyed painting and printmaking in his first year.

“If I am just learning skills and getting opportunities like that, I think I might want to do an apprenticeship or see where everything takes me,” he said of his post-graduation plans. “I feel like there are some students out there that really are banking on an accreditation, but for me, I am going with what I got.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.