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Courtesy of Becker College
Becker College is joining a growing list of small private liberal arts colleges deciding to close during the pandemic. The college in Worcester, Mass., will wind down operations in August after failing to find a viable path through the pandemic’s financial pressure cooker.
Current Becker students will have the option to transfer to more than a dozen nearby institutions. Some employees may also transfer to nearby colleges and universities. Tuition deposits from admitted students who planned to attend Becker next fall will be refunded.
Like many colleges that have recently closed, Becker was vulnerable before the pandemic. Enrollment declined in recent years. This fall, the college enrolled about 1,500 students. That was down from more than 1,800 during the 2015-16 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Recent financial documents show the college operated with several-hundred-thousand-dollar deficits for multiple years, and Becker's $5 million endowment did not provide a sufficient safety net. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education said that Becker’s financial situation threatened its long-term viability and that it was unlikely to operate through the next academic year.
College leadership tried to strengthen Becker's financial position by renegotiating contracts with major vendors, raising money, selling assets, consolidating departments and vacating two leased buildings in downtown Worcester. The college also cut staff members and reduced compensation, according to a public message from Christine Cassidy, chair of the board.
The pandemic quickly worsened Becker’s financial situation. Mitigating COVID-19 required investments that the college didn’t have the cash to make, and the pandemic ate away at student enrollment and retention.
“In addition to a greater investment in technology -- remote learning comes at a cost -- there was an unanticipated and significant drop in the number of students who, due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, chose not to live on campus, never registered, took a leave of absence, or dropped out,” Cassidy wrote. “This loss of revenue had a dramatic impact on the ability of the college to continue to maintain financial day-to-day college operations.”
Becker leadership also tried to stave off a closure through a merger or other affiliation. The college did not disclose which institutions it was looking to merge or affiliate with, but Becker’s president, Nancy Crimmin, told The Boston Globe that such talks ended in January.
“We had hoped that an alliance would be transformational, while generating revenue and assisting in optimizing the college’s resources,” Cassidy wrote in her public message. “When this affiliation did not happen earlier this year, the continuing pandemic and its obvious impact on the college’s financial condition caused a sudden and significant shift in our position.”
What will happen to the Becker campus is still up in the air, and “decision-making on options for the college’s property and assets will occur over time,” according to the college’s frequently asked questions page.
A Becker spokesperson declined to provide additional comment.
The college has set up academic pathways with 18 institutions, which are intended to provide easy transfer options for current Becker students and will allow them to complete their degrees.
Becker’s well-known interactive media design, esports management and integrated graphic design programs will go to Clark University, a private research university just over a mile away from Becker’s campus. The programs will become part of the new Becker School of Design and Technology at Clark University.
The arrangement was put together in just a few weeks, said David Fithian, president of Clark.
“The timing of their decision and the need to inform their students about what was going to happen, really dictated the pace at which we worked,” he said.
Clark anticipates enrolling between 200 and 250 current Becker students and has promised to match any financial aid the students received at Becker, Fithian said. He also expects Clark students to be interested in the new programs and plans to advertise the design and technology school to recruit new students for the 2022-23 academic year.
Alan Ritacco, dean of Becker’s school of design and technology, and Paul Cotnoir, associate dean of the school, will join Clark’s new program. Clark will also take on some other Becker employees, though Fithian is not sure who or how many.
Clark won’t pay Becker to take on the programs. The university will pay rent to Becker while it operates its new school out of the Becker campus. Clark is working on creating a home for the school on its own campus.
The game design program is a natural fit for a liberal arts college and research institution, Fithian said.
“Credible skills are created through programs like this. Tremendous interest in gaming is something that really does transcend all generations, and it's a really vibrant part of the entertainment economy,” Fithian said. “We’re really excited to be able to take what is currently an internationally recognized and highly ranked program at Becker and bring it into the fold of our undergraduate college and research university.”
Quinsigamond Community College, about a 10-minute drive away from Becker, has also signed a transfer agreement with Becker. Current students will have the option to transfer into the community college’s associate degree programs in criminal justice, early childhood education, nurse education and several other programs.
“We are here to offer Becker College students a way to achieve their higher education dreams,” Luis Pedraja, president of Quinsigamond, said in a press release. “We want to ensure that no one is left behind because of circumstances beyond their control. We worked diligently on this transfer/[memorandum of understanding] agreement and while this agreement does not include all programs at Becker, we will endeavor to enroll and support all transfer students and those who were considering Becker in the fall.”