Even before the pandemic shut its South End campus in March, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology was in trouble. With little new revenue to offset mounting debt, the institution was in the midst of selling its historic building on Berkeley Street and exploring a merger with another local college.
Now, nine months into the economic devastation the pandemic has wrought, Benjamin Franklin’s financial situation is even more precarious. Like other small, private colleges that depend almost entirely on tuition to survive, it has struggled to attract and retain students. The institution, which prepares graduates for careers in the local economy’s technical fields, has worked hard to keep student costs low, but in this economy, fewer are able to pay.
Last month accreditors cited Benjamin Franklin for its shaky finances and gave it two years to correct its problems or risk losing accreditation, a blow that could force closure.
“It has accelerated impacts that we . . . thought we had a longer period of time in order to figure out,” said Jed Nosal, the chairman of the school’s board.
Over the past several years, many small private colleges have grappled to overcome a declining number of college-age students and soaring tuitions that became unaffordable for many students. Mount Ida College, Newbury College, and a handful of other small institutions across New England shut their doors amid insurmountable financial challenges.
The pandemic has dramatically intensified those pressures. Fewer students and their families have the means to cover tuition. Doubts about the value of remote learning have prompted some to put off college temporarily. And international enrollment has plummeted.
“The higher education model is [in] crisis, and we are also in a consolidation era that started pre-COVID, so with COVID, that consolidation is going to accelerate,” said Rick Beyer, a higher education consultant with the firm AGB Consulting who works with small colleges to develop new business models.
In New England, the loss of small colleges can have profound consequences. They are the economic and social lifeblood of some towns and rural hamlets, such as New London, N.H., home to Colby-Sawyer College, and Poultney, Vt., where Green Mountain College closed last year.
And some small colleges play crucial roles in the higher education ecosystem. At Benjamin Franklin, the majority of the approximately 525 students are young men of color, a group underserved by many other institutions, according to Aisha Francis, chief executive of the college. In a year that has shone a spotlight on systemic racism, she said, preserving institutions that primarily serve students of color should be a top priority.
Benjamin Franklin’s leaders have spoken frankly about the school’s financial problems.
“The stark reality we face has been brought on by years of flat revenue, increased expenses, and the reliance on one-time funds to make up persistent and systemic shortfalls,” they wrote in a letter to faculty and staff recently. “Our challenges are not due to a short-term downturn but rather a business model that must change.”
But the school is adamant that its mission is critically important. The college was founded in 1908 with a bequest from the estate of Benjamin Franklin, who believed that “good apprentices are likely to make good citizens.” The college offers degrees in practical disciplines, including automotive technology, cybersecurity, HVAC technology, and electrical engineering. Tuition is around $8,500 per semester — far less than the price of many private colleges — and nearly all students receive financial aid.
“We are the quintessential public charity, we actually provide incredible high quality and necessary service at below cost or at a loss,” Nosal said.
When the pandemic hit, the school was able to pivot quickly because of its small size. It transitioned almost 300 courses online in two weeks, and modified some degree programs to give students more flexibility during the pandemic. It has also provided students with Wi-Fi hot spots, free laptops, increased health and wellness support, and continued emergency food services.
Meanwhile, the institution is wrestling with how to reduce its losses without having an impact on its students.
“They’re stretched, even with everything that we’re able to provide,” Nosal said.
A merger with nearby Wentworth Institute of Technology recently fell through after the deal became public. Nosal said the prospect of finding a viable merger partner has become more difficult during the pandemic because other schools had to focus all their attention and resources on keeping their campuses open.
Instead, the college is moving to a property it purchased in Roxbury’s Nubian Square. It recently received a $1 million gift from the Hamilton Company Charitable Foundation, contingent upon the school carrying out its plan to remain independent and relocate to 1011 Harrison Ave. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has vowed to help support that plan.
Benjamin Franklin is also exploring a novel type of partnership that some peer institutions have begun to form in the past few years — consortia of smaller colleges that band together to pool resources and offer courses jointly.
The school recently joined a partnership of colleges that was founded at Lasell College in Newton. Janet Holmgren, a consultant who previously served as the president of Mills College and Princeton vice provost, helped start that group. The schools are focused on finding ways to preserve their unique identities while pooling resources and sharing costs, she said.
Experts say it will be crucial for schools like Benjamin Franklin to have a strong business plan coming out of the pandemic.
The switch to online has only renewed the debate over the cost of college, and whether it is worth it. Institutions like Southern New Hampshire University have honed an online model at a fraction of the cost of in-person education, and during the pandemic many more families are questioning whether the high costs of a traditional campus experience are worth it.
“The mindset is changing,” said Joseph Chillo, the former president of Newbury College in Brookline who oversaw its closure in 2019. “Institutions have to understand the stressors and the challenges that their students and families are going through, and how [so] do you begin to think through the business model?”