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College for working women faces closure over deficit of $250,000

Brenda Delgado (center) participated in a class at Urban College, which may have to cancel its fall courses.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Brenda Delgado (center) participated in a class at Urban College, which may have to cancel its fall courses.

The Urban College of Boston, a two-year school that educates working women from low-income and immigrant backgrounds, is on the verge of closing amid deep financial troubles and a scuttled alliance with Endicott College.

Urban College, located on Tremont Street, will notify its 600 students this week that fall classes could be canceled, although leaders said they remain hopeful that another college or nonprofit group, along with private donors, will step forward to close a relatively modest deficit of about $250,000.

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“We’re going to do whatever we can to keep this college going,” said John Drew, the head of Action for Boston Community Development Inc., an antipoverty group that gave rise to the college and continues to work closely with the school. “It’s a very important institution in our community, and we’re not going to let it go away without a fight.”

Urban College fills a distinctive role, working closely with adults whose jobs and family responsibilities make it difficult to attend school.

Most students have been out of high school for a decade or more, and 40 percent have been on welfare, according to the college. Many are single mothers with little time or money to spare.

College officials learned Tuesday that a proposed merger with Endicott, a four-year private school in Beverly, had fallen through.

Peter Ebb, who chairs Urban College’s board of trustees, said the school was scrambling to avert a shutdown. “We need help,” he said.

College officials said if they have to cancel fall classes, they will work with local colleges to offer courses under their authority on the Boston campus.

Students said Wednesday they were dismayed by the news.

“I’m kind of shocked,” said Brenda Delgado, 43, a preschool teacher who is just five classes from her associate’s degree. “It would be very sad if it closed. I come here straight from work. They understand us here, and they support us 100 percent.”

Delgado takes the train from Lawrence with Graciela Robles, 54, who said she was worried about what would happen if the school cannot stay open.

“Right now I feel really sad,” she said. “My expectation was to finish here. For me, this college is my future. We all need this opportunity.”

The college, which opened in 1993, has always operated on a slender margin and relied heavily on a yearly grant from the federal government.

When Congress chose not to reauthorize the $700,000 subsidy last year, the college lost more than 25 percent of its $2.5 million budget.

“We got our legs cut off,” Drew said. “We’re trying to raise money, but we don’t have any Silicon Valley investors.”

The crisis comes three years after the death of Robert Coard, the college’s founding president. Coard had been instrumental to the college’s success and lobbied lawmakers on the school’s behalf.

“Bob was a force of nature,” Ebb said. “He breathed his heart and soul into the college.”

The college charges less than $5,000 a year to full-time students, 80 percent of whom receive financial aid.

Action for Boston Community Development has chipped in more than $550,000 to keep the school afloat, but Drew said its finances have reached a breaking point.

In a June letter to the college, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting group, said it had “grave concerns” about the school’s financial situation and urged it not to admit a new class of students.

Nearly all students attend part time, and they often take several years to complete their studies.

Given its mission, the college has limited fund-raising and no endowment to speak of.

“Our success stories are people that become Head Start classroom teachers, people who run small day care centers,” Ebb said.

He said the college has plans to expand its course offerings in an effort to become self-sufficient financially, but will first need to stabilize its situation.

Ebb said it would be a “terrible shame” for the college to close because of a relatively small financial shortfall, but said the school’s options are dwindling.

Earlier this summer, an agreement with Endicott seemed within reach.

In a June 27 letter to the accrediting group, Richard Wylie, president of Endicott, wrote that the colleges had been in discussions for several months, and that Endicott expected to “assume academic and financial operations” of the college by Aug. 1.

“Endicott fully expects that it will reach agreement with ABCD and the Urban College that would complete the acquisition,” he wrote in the letter, which was provided to the Globe.

Wylie wrote that he had a long professional history with Urban College and “had seen it grow and change in order to meet its mission and to survive in the high-density Boston area.”

“It is indeed unfortunate that it has reached this critical stage when survival as an independent college is in serious jeopardy,” he wrote.

Wylie said the trustees had authorized Endicott to enter into an agreement to acquire or merge with Urban College, but that the Beverly school would need more information before moving forward.

Wylie could not be reached for comment Wednesday, and it was unclear why the plan fell through.

News of the school’s plight prompted concern from its supporters.

“We need to do everything possible to keep the school open,” said Ayanna Pressley, a city councilor in Boston. “It’s a one-of-a-kind institution.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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