Boston College will take over Pine Manor College, the small, struggling liberal arts school in Chestnut Hill that serves primarily minority and low-income students, both schools announced Wednesday.
The agreement is among the first of what is expected to be many more mergers and closures of financially unstable small private schools amid the economic uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus.
Boston College, which has an endowment of around $2.5 billion, said on Wednesday that it will allow the 300 current Pine Manor students and any new students who have made deposits to enroll next year to continue their studies on their campus for two more years. After that, Boston College will take over Pine Manor’s assets, including the 46-acre Chestnut Hill campus, and liabilities, which total around $11 million.
“Here we are in this horrible pandemic, with potentially significant economic fallout and this powerful institution is saying, ‘You know, there are still important things to do,’ and I give President Leahy all the credit,” said Pine Manor College president Tom O’Reilly in a phone interview on Wednesday, referring to Boston College president William Leahy and praising the deal as generous for both sides.
Pine Manor had recently warned students about its uncertain financial future. Last month, officials said that the college was trying to find a path forward, but that a fall opening was in jeopardy. Pine Manor reduced its tuition deposit to hold seats and urged prospective freshmen to also place a deposit at another institution “as a backup plan,” according to a message from its admissions dean posted on its website.
Pine Manor, once a finishing school where its all-female student body posed for class photos in long white dresses, now serves a co-ed class that includes many students of color who are the first in their family to attend college.
O’Reilly, who has led the school since 2016, has seen it through a series of financial challenges and warnings from industry regulators, and he always acknowledged that its position was precarious. He fended off the town of Brookline, which threatened to take 7 acres of the campus by eminent domain in 2017.
The president has made it his mission to focus the school on serving students who might not otherwise have a chance to attend college, and worked to increase their retention and graduation rates by pairing them with personal mentors on campus to help them adjust to what can be a foreign world of higher education.
Following an agreement signed by the two schools, Boston College will establish the Pine Manor Institute for Student Success, which will fund outreach and academic support programs for underserved and low-income students at Boston College.
Pine Manor students will be allowed to apply to the Boston College Woods College of Advancing Studies to finish their degrees, the schools said. They will also continue to receive financial aid.
O’Reilly emphasized on Wednesday that nothing will change for students in the next two years.
“We’re still here for you,” O’Reilly said, speaking about students. “We won’t let them fail.”
But the announcement was unsettling for Pine Manor students.
Raudel Gomez was harvesting cucumbers in a sweltering field in Southwest Texas on Wednesday afternoon when he learned the news.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. It’s scary. Especially being 22, it’s scary,” Gomez said in a brief phone interview from the field, still processing the news. He is studying community health and kinesiology and said he needs one or two more semesters to graduate.
Now Gomez worries about whether he will ever finish his degree, or leave Eagle Pass, his hometown along the Rio Grande river, across from Piedras Negras, Mexico. With school closed for now, he has taken one of the few jobs available at home, harvesting vegetables for $7.25 an hour. He worries how he will pay back the student debt he has taken on if he does not graduate.
Pine Manor College opened a world of possibilities for him and his brother, who also attends Pine Manor as a freshman. Gomez is the first in his family to go to college and the first in Eagle Pass to be recruited to play college sports. His first semester was difficult as his parents divorced and his cousin passed away. But he kept working hard in school because he knew what it meant to his family.
“It was a difficult time but I never hesitated because I knew my parents were making a huge sacrifice to send me up there,” he said. “Pine Manor has always been good.”
Now, he said, he misses his soccer team and the life he had in Brookline. Gomez had also recently launched his own personal fitness business, he said. He had become a mentor to other students and volunteered in Boston at the YMCA and with cancer patients.
"I felt like I had so much to give, I was ready to start having a voice in the school," he said.
He said he hopes he will be able to finish at Pine Manor.
Julian Medina, 23, a Pine Manor student from Boston, said the news is making him reconsider his plans.
Medina, who is working to finish a degree in political science, had planned to stop school and pursue a career in real estate. With news that the college might not be around in a few years, he is thinking he might try to finish soon. Medina said he loves the school and his professors.
“The school helps students more than it helps itself,” he said.