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GS to merge with shuttered Southeastern

The Graduate School, a private not-for-profit in the District that specializes in training government workers, has acquired most of the assets and liabilities of Southeastern University, the venerable campus that closed last year amid accreditation problems.

The acquisition, to be publicly announced this afternoon, will expand the Graduate School into a more comprehensive, career-oriented institution for both government and the broader community, officials said.

"Our goal is to create a new institution which will provide accessible and practical public service education and continuing education," said Jerry Ice, CEO and president of the Graduate School, in a statement. "Our focus will be on helping students prepare for twenty-first century jobs and careers."

It's a happy ending of sorts for Southeastern, which lost its accreditation -- the lifeblood of a college -- from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education at the end of August. A report from the commission found it lacked rigor and was losing faculty, enrollment and financial stability. The small, private college had operated since 1879 and had long served a population of lower-income and international students.

Of the 645 students enrolled at the Southwest Washington campus in fall 2008, more than 300 graduated in June. Many of the rest transferred to the University of the District of Columbia, Trinity Washington University or Washington Adventist University, said Elaine Ryan, then Southeastern's interim president.

Officials of both institutions were optimistic for a merger with the Graduate School (also known as GS Graduate School), a 90-year-old institution that provides continuing education for 150,000 students a year, most of them government workers. The schools sit blocks apart; the hope was to create a combined school with a wider range of degrees and a focus on public service and federal job training.

Graduate School officials said that District residents are significantly underrepresented in the federal workforce, a deficit the school could help to close with its expanded programs.

"We are delighted that the Southeastern University's mission of serving the local D.C. population will live on through the Graduate School," said Ryan, who is now provost of the Graduate School.

Founded by the YMCA, Southeastern has operated since 1879 in southwest Washington, serving lower-income and international students. Enrollment dropped after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the student population shifted from international students to low-income District residents.

A potential fine for an alleged violation of federal education regulations imperiled the prospective merger. The U.S. Department of Education found in a 2008 review that Southeastern had improperly disbursed federal aid to students in an unaccredited online education program, according to an Aug. 21, 2008, investigative report.

Southeastern officials maintained they never operated an unauthorized distance-learning program. In a letter to federal officials, former Southeastern president Charlene Drew Davis wrote that only 122 of the approximately 650 students took half or more of their courses online.

Federal regulators initially spoke of fining Southeastern up to $10 million for the alleged violation, according to J.R. Clark, chairman of the school's board of trustees. "We couldn't pay that. It might as well have been a billion dollars," he told me last fall. The parties must have settled on a more modest sum.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  March 5, 2010; 10:46 AM ET
Categories:  Accreditation , Administration , Finance , Online  | Tags: GS Graduate School, Southeastern University, accreditation  
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