There’s a good reason you’ve probably never heard of Bay State College.
The for-profit school, located in the same Back Bay office building as several foreign consulates, Yahoo, and a WeWork site, had an enrollment of just about 215 in the fall. Its pared down staff of mostly adjunct professors often teach just one to three students in each class. A nursing program of about 100 students is the college’s biggest department.
Campus leaders say they have a turnaround plan, but some current and former employees aren’t sure the money-losing college can survive. Ambow Education Holding, which bought the school in 2017, has posted financial losses for the past three years.
“It’s mostly sort of sad,” said one professor who asked not to be named to protect his job. “Like visiting your childhood bedroom for the last time before the house is sold.”
As recently as a decade ago, Bay State, which opened in 1946 to prepare students for careers in the airline industry, enrolled about 1,200 students. But a combination of employee turnover, demographic declines of college-age students and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a steady decline in enrollment and threatened the school’s viability.
Now, the lack of financial resources and personnel is calling into question the quality of the education Bay State is providing to its mostly low-income, minority, and veteran students, mirroring concerns politicians and prosecutors have raised across the for-profit college industry in recent years. Bay State students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, paid an average of $20,350 in tuition and fees in 2021.
The school’s struggles have attracted attention. Last month, the US Department of Education placed Bay State on heightened scrutiny over the college’s ability to administer financial aid. The new label means that Bay State will have to make financial aid payments to students from its own institutional funds and then request repayment from the department.
In early 2020, the college paid $1.1 million to settle charges filed by the state attorney general’s office that it misled students and used illegal telemarketing strategies. A year later, the Federal Trade Commission sent a notice warning the nation’s 70 largest for-profit colleges that it was “cracking down” on false promises made by the schools.
Eileen Connor, president of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, said Bay State appears to follow a common pattern among for-profit schools of spending “as little as possible on education” and support services despite promises made in marketing material or on websites.
“When a school gets into a crisis, all these trends are exacerbated and it seems clear that Bay State is in crisis,” Connor said.
Bay State rejected the critique, calling it an “inaccurate categorization of how Bay State operates.” It said that resources for students are available, including an online tutoring service.
In interviews, the past and present faculty members said the school hadn’t done a good job explaining its financial and regulatory challenges to its campus community. Students and staff are bounced from one administrator to the next when they face class scheduling issues, they said. Current administrators also blame the turmoil on past leadership blunders.
“I just felt like I was on the Titanic rearranging deck chairs,” said another current instructor who also asked to remain anonymous. “I enjoy teaching and do it for the kids but everything else about the situation is not great. It’s a skeleton crew right now.”
Jeff Mason, Bay State’s interim president since March, said in an interview late last month that the college plans to reduce expenses by cutting academic programs and renegotiating the cost of the school’s lease. The college made an undisclosed number of job cuts in recent months, which Mason said was necessary to adjust to the smaller student population.
The retrenchment comes two weeks before Bay State officials are expected to appear before its accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education. The organization placed the college on probation in April for failing to demonstrate it had the resources to sustain quality operations, as well as concerns about the college’s governance structure.
The commission, which visited Bay State in November, has met with college officials and the chief executive and founder of the parent company, Jin Huang, according to an internal agenda obtained by the Globe. It could revoke Bay State’s accreditation if commission members determine the college’s financial plan isn’t realistic.
“The commission is concerned,” said its president, Lawrence Schall. “There’s not much to say until after the Jan. 12 hearing.”
Mason said the college will no longer admit students to six of its academic programs: criminal justice, entertainment management, fashion merchandising, information technology, management, and physical therapist assistants. Going forward, Bay State will offer two associate degree programs, in nursing and business administration, and two bachelor degree programs, in nursing and health care management, Mason said.
“We’ve had to think about this very hard and make some difficult decisions,” said Mason, who joined Bay State in the mid-1990s as an adjunct English professor. “No one would be happy if this institution did not become self-sustaining.”
Mason said the college would like to add other health care-related programs down the line.
“Jin, the founder of Ambow, gives us the autonomy to make decisions about our institution,” Mason said.
Students in the six programs being phased out will be given the choice of completing their degrees at Bay State or transferring to another institution. Mason did not specify which Boston-area colleges might accept transfer students from Bay State.
Mason said the college will work with each of the students in the programs being eliminated to create individualized plans for completing their studies or transferring.
The college is “fully staffed” in its health-related programs, Mason said, and has just one full-time employee working in the six programs being eliminated. Adjunct professors in different departments at the school told the Globe they have had no department chairs to turn to for support and questions.
“I was advising a student last April who said ‘You’re the only person who cares about anything,’” said Ray Guillette, who was an adjunct professor until May.
The college informed students and instructors of the upcoming program changes Thursday.
Ambow, then based in Beijing, had ambitions to create an international for-profit higher education brand when it bought the school from the Pfannenstiehl family in Boston.
Five years later, the expansion plans have yet to come to fruition despite Ambow purchasing another struggling college in San Diego, NewSchool of Architecture & Design.
Bay State’s 2021 audited financial statements, the most recent available, show it lost $3.3 million in 2021, despite receiving $1.4 million through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Ambow covering $1.7 million in operating expenses.
Ambow, which says it has relocated to the United States, trades on the New York Stock Exchange, where its stock price hasn’t risen above $1 in the last year.
The company plans to grow its US footprint, in part through a “shared services” entity that handles finance, human resources, IT, financial aid, and other back-office jobs for Bay State and NewSchool. Ambow hopes to sell those services to other small colleges across the country.
The company, which recently said it sold its China assets for $12 million, owns an online learning platform that uses artificial intelligence in cameras, holographs, and other technologies, which it also plans to sell to other US colleges, according to current and former employees.