After years of struggling at Becker College, the pandemic was too much of an obstacle
This phrase became something of a refrain over the months and years that followed, even as the school suffered budget cuts, rounds of layoffs and holidays, and other increasingly desperate attempts to save money. money – until last week, when Becker announced, with almost equal bluntness, that he would also close his doors forever.
“They were constantly telling people that everything was fine,” said a former employee. “Everything was not going well. “
The pandemic was the last straw for Becker. But the college has also suffered from long-standing issues that have weakened its financial health – the challenges it, and other small private colleges, have struggled to overcome for years; issues such as declining enrollment, lackluster fundraising, and a failure to capitalize on its best programs.
“It’s not just COVID, it was a very fragile situation before COVID,” said Neil Lefkowitz, a Washington, DC lawyer who specializes in higher education closures and mergers.
For many small tuition-dependent colleges, a return to normal this fall seems increasingly likely, despite early predictions that the pandemic could doom these institutions, which offer liberal arts degrees at a relatively high price. . But a combination of federal stimulus funds and hasty budget cuts have kept nearly a handful of small private schools from bankruptcy.
But Becker’s struggle remains a caveat: Even if the worst seems to be over, many of these institutions will enter next year with depleted supplies, depleted staff, and students increasingly unable and unwilling to pay fees. high tuition fees.
“The effects of COVID-19 are going to be felt for a long time,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall who studies higher education finance.
The loss of a college is a blow to any community. Becker has more than 400 employees, including around 200 teachers.
The students caught in the middle of Becker’s collapse are mostly from the surrounding area. The student body was predominantly white and 40 percent low income, with more than three-quarters of students taking out federal student loans to pay off the $ 46,000 Cost; most students, however, did not pay the full price.
There were signs the college, which admitted 70 percent of applicants, was not serving its students well: only 37 percent of full-time students graduated in four years, according to federal data reported by the college. After graduation, about 7.5 percent of his failing students on their student loans, which is lower than the national average but still relatively high.
“The higher education community in Worcester is very close-knit, and working together during the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more so,” said David Fithian, president of nearby Clark University, who will take over the program. of Becker’s interactive media, including a number of its employees and Becker’s facility and name, with support from several local Worcester foundations.
Fithian said Clark, who has around 2,300 students, spent an additional $ 11 million last year on COVID-19 testing and other precautions to get students back to campus. Becker didn’t have that kind of money. His endowment was $ 4.5 million, a tiny fraction of Clark’s $ 418 million.
“It was extremely difficult. Like Becker and all the other colleges, we had to incur some pretty significant unexpected costs, ”said Fithian.
Last summer, Becker also planned to allow students to return to campus in the fall, but faced with the cost of routine testing and other precautions, leaders changed courses a few weeks before the semester started. and announced that the school would continue fully online. Enrollments fell and financial paralysis set in.
But long before the pandemic, and even before Mount Ida was closed, Becker knew he needed to make profound structural changes.
In the fall of 2017, higher education consultants from the firm Ellucian visited the school and produced a detailed report that identified a central problem.: The school had lost its direction. Without a clear goal, it was suffering from stagnant enrollment and low graduation rates.
“The vision needs to be clarified,” the report says.
The report also detailed more specific issues: dilapidated facilities, confusion about various centers on campus, unsophisticated marketing and recruiting, and inability to realize the potential of its well-known veterinary science, nursing and game design programs. video.
The consultants advised Becker to take advantage of its valuable assets: an on-site veterinary clinic, a leading interactive media design program, a unique equine program, a mental health clinic, a crime simulation lab, and division III sports on its tightly knit campus.
In the end, the consultants were optimistic. The school had valuable assets and if it could resolve its identity crisis, they said, it could begin to achieve its goal of becoming a nationally recognized institution.
The warnings, however, failed to prompt directors to act, according to five current and former employees. The school was never able to focus, they said, and continued to struggle as leaders tried one new idea after another.
More recently, the administration had entered into an agreement with TCS Education System, a Chicago-based company that operates a college system across the country. When that option fell through several months ago, executives had few options and chose to close. In early March, Crimmin announced that the school had stopped recruiting new students.
Becker’s closure was in a way a test of a set of new state regulations passed in the wake of the disappearance of Mount Ida, in an effort to prevent another equally chaotic last-minute closure.
The new rules state that colleges must post three years of audited financial statements on their website. State officials have also put in place a process for screening and reporting schools with financial problems, and they require schools to notify their students if they are reported.
Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago noted in an interview that the school published a notice a month ago that it was considering closure and, unlike Mount Ida, has already made deals with d ‘other colleges where students can complete their degrees.
“The things we had control over and had responsibilities for went pretty well,” he said.
Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the State Council for Higher Education, said it was crucial to warn students as much as possible about a college closing.
“It’s great that the folks at Becker, the Department of Higher Education and other colleges rushed to come up with alternatives, but it should have happened sooner,” he said.
After Mount Ida closed, Becker and other colleges rushed to attract his students. Some of them have been transferred to Becker and now find themselves in a second lockdown.
Bryan Bastos was in his first year at Mount Ida when the college closed in his second semester.
He transferred first to Lesley University, Cambridge, then came to Becker due to his well-known digital media program.
“Becker gave me the chance to meet new people, and then it was just another slap in the face,” said Bastos, 21, of East Boston.
Bastos is not sure now if he will stay in school. He spent tens of thousands on a degree he still doesn’t have. He could move to the west coast or find a full-time job.
“I just ran out of resources,” he said. “It’s just a waste of money for a while now. I feel like I’m cursed and need to be blessed or something.