Accreditation setback: With 1 path closed, American College of Building Arts tries another

The American College of the Building Arts has been open since 2005 and now has 35 students.

Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

Senior student Michael Lauer works Friday on a cornice at the Old City Jail where the American College of Building Arts is housed. Lauer is doing ornamental plaster work, known as strap work, on a ceiling in the jail.

The American College of the Building Arts invested more than three years trying to earn the kind of accreditation that would make its students eligible for government grants and loans.

But the U.S. Department of Education late last year froze the ability of the accrediting agency, the American Academy for Liberal Education, to grant that level of accreditation.

School leaders say they are now seeking accreditation through another agency, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, a process which usually takes between 18 and 24 months.

The college, like many new schools, has struggled financially since it opened in 2005. Increasing enrollment would alleviate some financial problems, but that has proved difficult, at least in part because students are not eligible for government financial assistance.

Annual tuition for full-time students is about $20,000.

The college is the only school in the country that trains artisans in traditional building arts, such as metalwork and timber framing, within a curriculum that includes business, economics, languages and other traditional college courses.

Gen. Colby Broadwater, the college's president, said that in addition to seeking accreditation from the new agency, the school will continue to seek accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education.

The academy's accreditation won't make students eligible for aid, he said, but, "it would validate the work we put in." And it would mean other higher education institutions could accept transfer credits from the building arts college.

Broadwater said he thinks the building arts college is still on track because many new schools take between eight and 10 years to earn accreditation.

And the accreditation setback won't prevent the school from operating, he said. Thirty-five students are enrolled.

Michael Lauer is one of those students. He is a senior who has focused on plaster work. Lauer is completing a senior project, doing ornamental plaster work, known as strap work, on a ceiling in the Old City Jail.

Lauer said in previous jobs as a graphic artist and art director, he did work that "would be used for a couple of minutes then be trashed." But now he's working on things that will last "lifetimes or generations."

Students who attend a new school such as the building arts college know they are taking some risk, he said, "but it's a calculated risk." And the mix of hands-on and classroom work is something he couldn't get anywhere else.

He is learning "an artisan's point of view, not just a tradesman's point of view," he said.

He helps defray the cost of his education by participating in a work-study program and by working as the school's web master.

James Waddell, the school's vice president of operations and finance, said the college helps many students financially through scholarships and work opportunities.

Broadwater said the college's board has done a lot of work in the past year to bring financial stability to the school. The college still faces some challenges, like all schools in the economic downturn, he said. "But it's the best it's been since I've been here."