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Trying Times for Bishop State

Trying Times for Bishop State 
The Alabama school is struggling to overcome a string of financial aid and scholarship scandals.

By Blair S. Walker

Decades before segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocked the University of Alabama’s doors to African-Americans in the 1960s, Bishop State Community College was serving as a bastion of Black higher education. 

These days, though, the Mobile, Ala., HBCU is going through one of the more trying periods in its 79-year history. Bishop State’s current crisis stems from charges that scholarship money has been systematically pilfered and misappropriated at a school where, according to state records, 81 percent of the 4,077 students receive financial aid.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the university received $10.8 million in federal aid in 2005. The school’s 2006 student body is 60.9 percent Black and 34.4 percent White, according to Bishop State statistics.

Earlier this year, federal authorities ordered Bishop State to repay $150,000 in Pell Grant funds after reviewing the community college’s books. Six people, including three school employees, have been accused of participating in a scheme to funnel student aid and scholarships to bogus Bishop State students.

The six have been charged by the Mobile County District Attorney’s office with felony theft by deception, in conjunction with more than $75,000 in missing financial aid. No trial date has been set on the charges, which could carry 20-year prison sentences for the defendants.

The turmoil enveloping Bishop State “will have an effect on the college, but one we will be able to handle,” university president Yvonne Kennedy assured The Associated Press. “Our students will certainly not be deprived of an education.”

Reports of alleged financial aid improprieties surfaced at Bishop State following the 2003-2004 school year, when the Education Department produced an unfavorable audit of aid payments. 

Unflattering headlines came in 2005 when state auditors found that one student continued to receive financial aid after getting a degree, while four others got aid despite attending no classes.

Bishop State again found itself receiving unwelcome scrutiny in August, when state investigators began to look into reports of possible financial aid fraud.

Alarmed by more claims that federal aid was being doled out to classroom no-shows, the Education Department stopped allowing Bishop State students to receive financial aid before producing documentation. Students now have to provide extensive proof of enrollment before federal aid is released, according to a department spokesman.

Kennedy, who’s been Bishop State’s president for 25 years and is also a Democratic state representative, found herself at the center of another funding furor that same month. Local press reported she sent $94,000 in legislative discretionary money to the Bishop State Community College Foundation, which she runs.

When Kennedy requested the money in 2003, she indicated it would be used to build a laboratory for Bishop State culinary arts students. But the foundation’s books indicated the money was used to fund hundreds of student scholarships.

September brought more bad news. The three Bishop State employees were placed on administrative leave as state officials looked into their alleged schemes to steal financial aid. One 14-year employee is accused of funneling financial aid to her disabled grandmother, who died in March.

October brought another flap involving Kennedy, when she came under fire for directing scholarship funds from Bishop State’s foundation to a niece. Kennedy, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, says the arrangement was legal because she personally donated the funds to the foundation.

The following month, Kennedy brought in Financial Aid Services Inc., to revamp the university’s financial aid system. Financial Aid Services quickly discovered that the community college had been violating federal rules by not having a policy for verifying student aid information, school spokesman Herb Jordan says.

Based in Atlanta, Financial Aid Services earns up to $2,710 a day for the work it does at Bishop State, and is being paid from the community college’s general operating funds, Jordan says.

For decades, Bishop State was the only game in town for Blacks in Mobile who sought a college education.

The school started in 1927 as the Mobile branch of Alabama State Teachers College. Nine years later, it was renamed Bishop State Community College and designated a two-year college.

In the wake of the series of negative headlines, three Republican members of the state board of education have called for Kennedy to resign.

Jordan insists that despite the unfavorable headlines, Bishop State is still doing a good job of educating Mobile-area students. He notes that the university’s commercial food service program enjoys robust enrollment, and points to a waiting list for associate degrees in nursing.

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