After years of struggle at Becker College, the pandemic was one hurdle too many

Becker College in Worcester said it would close because of financial difficulties. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

When Mount Ida College in Newton closed in a cloud of chaos in spring 2018, it sent shivers through the rest of the higher education universe, a warning of what could lie in store for other small, increasingly vulnerable private institutions.

That same spring, administrators at Becker College, a small private institution in Worcester, gathered their worried staff in an auditorium to reassure them that their school would not meet a similar end. A slide deck presented at that meeting, employees recalled, showed Mount Ida’s finances in red and Becker’s in green.

“We are not Mount Ida,” the college’s new president, Nancy Crimmin, said, her current and former employees recalled.

That phrase became a sort of refrain in the ensuing months and years, even as the school underwent budget cuts, rounds of layoffs and furloughs, and other increasingly desperate attempts to save money — until last week, when Becker announced, with near equal abruptness, that it would also shut its doors forever.

“They were constantly telling people everything was ok,” said one former employee. “Everything was not ok.”

The pandemic was the last straw for Becker. But the college also suffered from longstanding challenges that weakened its financial health — difficulties it, and other small private colleges, have been struggling to overcome for years; problems like declining enrollment, lackluster fund-raising and a failure to capitalize on its best programs.

“This is not just COVID, this was a very fragile situation pre-COVID,” said Neil Lefkowitz, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in higher education closures and mergers.

For many small, tuition-dependent colleges, a return to normal this fall looks increasingly likely, despite early predictions that the pandemic could doom these institutions, which offer liberal arts degrees for a relatively high price. But a combination of federal stimulus money and hasty budget trimming has prevented all but a handful of small private schools from going under.

But Becker’s struggle remains a cautionary tale: Even though the worst appears to be over, many of these institutions will enter next year with tapped-out reserves, depleted staffs, and students who are increasingly unable and unwilling to pay hefty tuition.

“The effects of COVID-19 are going to be felt for a long time,” said Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall professor 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 teaching staff.

The students caught amid Becker’s collapse primarily come from the surrounding region. The student body was mostly white and 40 percent low income, with more than three-quarters of students taking out federal student loans to afford the $46,000 cost; most students, however, did not pay full price.

There were signs that the college, which admitted 70 percent of applicants, was not serving its students well: Just 37 percent of full-time students graduated within four years, according to federal data reported by the college. After graduation, about 7.5 percent of its students defaulted on their student loans, which is below the national average but still relatively high.

“The higher education community in Worcester is very close-knit, and working together through the COVID-19 pandemic has made that even more so,” said David Fithian, president of nearby Clark University, which will take over Becker’s interactive media program, including a number of its staff and the Becker facility and name, with support from several local Worcester foundations.

Fithian said Clark, which has about 2,300 students, spent an extra $11 million last year on COVID-19 testing and other precautions to bring students back to campus. Becker didn’t have that kind of cash. Its endowment was $4.5 million, a tiny fraction of Clark’s $418 million.

“It was extremely challenging. Like Becker and every other college, we had to take on quite significant unexpected costs,” Fithian said.

Last summer Becker had 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 course just weeks before the semester began and announced the school would continue completely online. Enrollment plummeted, and financial paralysis set in.

But long before the pandemic, and even before Mount Ida closed, Becker knew it needed to make deep 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 purpose, it was suffering from stagnant enrollment and low graduation rates.

“The vision needs to be clarified,” the report said.

The report also detailed more specific problems: dilapidated facilities, confusion about various centers on campus, unsophisticated marketing and recruitment, and a failure to realize the potential of its well-known programs in veterinary science, nursing, and video game design.

The consultants advised Becker to take advantage of its valuable assets: An on-site vet clinic, top-ranked interactive media design program, unique equine program, mental health clinic, mock crime lab and Division III athletics on its tight-knit campus.

In the end, the consultants were optimistic. The school had valuable assets and if it could solve its identity crisis, they said, it could begin to achieve its goal of becoming a nationally recognized institution.

The warnings, however, failed to propel administrators to action, according to five current and former employees. The school was never able to narrow its focus, they said, and continued to flail as leaders tried one new idea after another.

Most recently, the administration had pursued a deal with TCS Education System, a Chicago company that operates a system of colleges across the country. When that possibility fell through several months ago, leaders faced few options, and elected to close. In early March, Crimmin announced that the school had stopped recruiting new students.

Becker’s closure has been somewhat of a test of a set of new state regulations passed in the wake of Mount Ida’s demise, with the goal of preventing another equally chaotic, last-minute closure.

The new rules stipulate that colleges must post three years of audited financial statements on their website. State officials also established a process for screening and flagging schools with concerning finances, and they require schools to notify their students if they are flagged.

Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago noted in an interview that the school posted notice a month ago that it was considering closure and, unlike Mount Ida, has already forged agreements with other colleges where students can finish their degrees.

“The things we had control over and where we had responsibility went quite well,” he said.

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, said it is crucial to give students as much warning as possible when a college closes.

“It’s great that folks at Becker, at the Department of Higher Education and at other colleges have scrambled to offer alternatives, but it should have happened earlier,” he said.

After Mount Ida closed, Becker and other colleges rushed to attract its students. Some of them transferred to Becker and now find themselves navigating a second closure.

Bryan Bastos was a freshman at Mount Ida when the college closed during his second semester.

First he transferred to Lesley University, in Cambridge, then came to Becker because of its well-known digital media program.

“Becker gave me the chance to meet new people, and then it was just kind of another slap in the face,” said Bastos, 21, of East Boston.

Bastos is not sure now whether he will stay in school. He has spent tens of thousands on a degree that he still does not have. He might move to the West Coast or get a full-time job.

“I kind of just ran out my resources,” he said. “It’s just been a waste of money for a while now. I feel like I’m cursed and I need to get blessed or something.”

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