LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A small, historically black college founded 135 years ago by former slaves celebrated a milestone Monday — gaining national accreditation that's expected to spur growth for the tiny campus in Louisville.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth joined students, faculty and administrators in marking the new status for Simmons College of Kentucky, a private school that hopes to double its enrollment next fall with the addition of several new academic programs.
"Simply put, accreditation is value," said Kevin Cosby, the college's president. "It is proof that Simmons has met national standards necessary to produce graduates who are prepared to enter into their selected professions."
Simmons said its accreditation was awarded by The Association of Biblical Higher Education, comprised of almost 200 postsecondary institutions across North America. The school completed an eight-year assessment of its academic and financial standards to achieve the recognition.
School leaders said the newfound status also positions the school to seek federal designation among the nation's historically black colleges and universities. That designation could pump a minimum of $300,000 annually into Simmons, they said.
The school also landed a large financial award Monday to further the momentum.
The Gheens Foundation announced it was awarding a $2 million grant to Simmons, drawing cheers from the crowd. The grant will help support new academic programs, scholarships and building improvements. The grant nearly matches the school's annual budget.
Paul, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, has been reaching out to black voters in hopes of broadening the GOP's appeal to what has traditionally been a reliably Democratic voting bloc. He said Monday there's "no greater equalizer" than education and was upbeat about Simmons' future.
"I hope that when young men and women graduate from Simmons College, they will touch a part of the future and change something from the way it was to something better," Paul said.
Yarmuth, who represents the Louisville area and is the lone Democrat in Kentucky's congressional delegation, said the accreditation does more than recognize the quality of the school's programs. "It's a recognition that also brings with it resources, both for the institution and for students," he said.
The college has about 130 students but hopes to have twice as many in the fall. The school plans to add new bachelor's degree programs in business administration, communications and sociology, plus an associate degree program in general studies.
The school, described as "a great educational lighthouse for a struggling people" a century ago by Booker T. Washington, still looks to reach people often overlooked by others in economically distressed neighborhoods, said the school's board of trustees chairman, F. Bruce Williams.
"This is an institution that does not simply look at where people are; it looks at where they can go," he said. "Not what they have done, but what they can do. ... One person's trash is another person's treasure. And we believe that there is treasure in this community."