The Southwest School of Art is located downtown at the former Ursuline Academy.
The Southwest School of Art operated independently for the last time on April 21. It will be part the University of Texas at San Antonio starting in the fall. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As San Antonio’s Southwest School of Art prepares to enter its seventh year of offering a four-year degree program, pressure is mounting on school officials to gain accreditation before an eight-year deadline arrives.

In Texas, the state’s higher education coordinating board gives new institutions an eight-year window in which to achieve accreditation, though the board grants schools the authority to confer degrees while they wait.

After two derailed attempts toward accreditation in the last 13 months, the Southwest School of Art (SSA) is trying again, but facing a shorter timeline to ensure that its budget remains in the black for the three years required by the accreditation body. Should the school fail to gain accreditation by 2021, the state’s only independent art college would no longer be able to confer four-year degrees.

“We are exploring every option and we are doing our due diligence … but our first goal, of course, is to make sure that fiscal year 2019 is a positive year,” said SSA President Paula Owen, who has estimated the school needs to raise close to $10 million in the next three years to meet the accreditation financial standards.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board gives institutions eight years to gain accreditation because that period of time is sufficient to prove efficacy in leadership, mission, and budgeting, said Rex Peebles, the board’s assistant commissioner for academic quality and workforce.

“After eight years if they have not managed to be accredited by someone, then frankly they probably shouldn’t be in business, because that is plenty of time to get accredited,” Peebles said.

Without accreditation, students can’t receive federal financial aid and transferring credits or applying to accredited advanced degree programs can be challenging. Janea Johnson, spokeswoman for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), described accreditation as the stamp of approval from peer institutions and a sign of good financial stewardship.

“If you are a student applying to graduate school, most accredited graduate programs also expect a student to earn a credential from another accredited institution,” Johnson said. “There are cases where that is not applicable, but in broad strokes that is true.”

Impact on students

The Southwest School of Art is located in downtown San Antonio in what used to be the Ursuline Convent and Academy, facilities that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In a document detailing the school’s plan for growth and describing the need for an independent college of art, SSA officials lay out how a university art degree program differs from an independent college of art: “The difference between the two is like the difference between a cup of coffee and a cup of espresso.”

In 2018, the college granted degrees to its first graduating class of 10 students, from an initial class of 21 students, according to the school’s website. Each subsequent class has started out with about 20 students, with about 80 percent returning for their sophomore year. To date, the school has conferred 20 four-year degrees.

Nicki Lucio graduated in SSA’s first class in 2018 and experienced financial challenges along the way because of the school’s lack of accreditation.

“Coming to SSA from San Antonio College meant that I could no longer receive Pell Grants to assist with my tuition, which made attending full-time difficult,” Lucio said, referring to federal financial aid.

“Despite having a very good scholarship to the school, I had to work two jobs just to stay on top of payments. Two jobs and a full-time class schedule are incredibly difficult time management nightmares, and towards the end of my graduating year, I was falling apart at the seams physically and mentally.”

Lucio attempted claiming education-related expenses on tax returns, but found out later that due to the school’s unaccredited status the expenses wouldn’t qualify. The artist acknowledges that attending SSA was a worthwhile experience that allowed her to express and share experiences through different mediums, including painting, drawing, and photography.

Another consequence of graduating from an unaccredited institution is that accredited advanced degree programs might not accept degrees from unaccredited schools.

Josué Romero, a 2019 graduate, applied to six graduate schools and was accepted by four. One of those, Portland State University, questioned the accreditation status of SSA, but SSA officials worked with Romero to answer the questions and he ultimately was admitted. He will attend Columbia College Chicago in the fall.

Owen said SSA is working directly with any alumni who encounter obstacles in the graduate school admissions process.

We have worked, for instance, directly with UTSA, because [UTSA] had had a ruling about the accreditation requirement for graduate school and they waived it for our students this year, so we do have students going to grad school,” Owen said.

Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen (right) at the Southwest School of Art All-School Exhibition in 2014. Credit: Page Graham for the San Antonio Report

The seven-year path to accreditation

Southwest School of Art gained approval for its four-year degree program in 2013. Up until April 2018, the school was pursuing accreditation through SACSCOC, the accrediting body for many colleges and universities including Trinity University, Texas A&M, and the San Antonio Colleges.

At that time, school officials learned that the institution would not be able to meet one of SACSCOC’s financial requirements: to be accredited, schools must submit three consecutive years of positive operating budgets. In April 2018, SSA President Paula Owen told the Rivard Report that by putting her school’s budget in a different format that factors in depreciation to submit to SACSCOC, the school discovered an operating deficit in fiscal year 2017.

SSA’s IRS Form 990 from that year showed a deficit of more than $1 million.

The school instead chose to pursue accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), an accreditation body that sets standards for schools offering degrees focused on art and design. Owen estimated that the school would achieve accreditation in 2020.

As a new accreditor in Texas, NASAD had to apply for status through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. However, SSA learned in February that NASAD decided not to seek this status, causing the school to return to seeking accreditation through SACSCOC.

But the issue of SSA’s budgetary challenges remain. Last week, Owen said her school plans to seek accreditation by submitting budgetary documents from fiscal years 2018, 2019, and 2020.

When asked if the school’s operations for fiscal year 2018 finished in the black as would be required by SACSCOC, Owen said only that the budget was “very close” and “under review.” She said the school is working with a consultant who is familiar with SACSCOC guidelines to review the financial statement.

“We are working on it, would be the true description of the facts,” Owen said, declining to provide documentation of the fiscal year 2018 budget to the Rivard Report.

The fiscal year 2019 ends July 31. Owen said she was “fairly confident” the school’s financials would be positive. Should fiscal year 2019 show a deficit, SSA would not be able to meet SACSCOC’s financial requirements before the eight-year timeline runs out.

At the beginning of May, Owen told the Rivard Report that SSA must raise about $10 million in additional funding to meet SACSCOC financial requirements by 2021. She would not specify how much money would need to be raised per year in order to keep the school in the black.

The school has explored other options for accrediting commissions, but found that they would not be a good fit and would “probably be more detrimental to [SSA’s] situation than not,” Owen said.

Should the college fail to gain accreditation and be unable to confer four-year degrees, it has a memorandum of understanding with UTSA that would provide SSA students a path to graduation by attending UTSA to finish their studies, Owen said. This memorandum has not yet been certified by Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.