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March 29, 2021

Becker College officially closing at end of spring semester

Photo | Grant Welker Becker College's Worcester campus

Becker College will permanently close at the end of the spring semester, the Worcester school announced Monday morning, bringing a growing crisis in higher education to the city.

Becker said it will continue with plans to hold a graduation ceremony on May 8 and will continue providing academic, support and other services to students through the end of August.

The college said it has made arrangements with a number of area colleges to provide admission to Becker students, including Assumption University in Worcester, Dean College in Franklin, Fitchburg State University, Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Worcester State University.

“This was a deeply painful decision for the Board to make — one that the College administration made every possible effort to stave off, but one we came to realize in recent weeks was unavoidable," Christine Cassidy, Becker's board of trustees chair and an alumna, said in a statement. "Our commitment going forward is to do everything we can to ensure our students finish this year strongly positioned to continue their education, and that they and all our faculty and staff get access to the best education and employment opportunities available."

Becker, one of nine colleges in Worcester, said it spent months trying to find a path to viability but was unable to do so. The school, which has roughly 1,700 students, said in early March it was considering options for its future, including a potential closure

The New England Commission of Higher Education, an accreditation agency, said in a joint statement with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education in early March that Becker was unlikely to continue operations through the next academic year.

Lawrence Schall, the president of the accreditation commission, said Monday that Becker has been in regular contact with the group over the past three months and will report to the agency at its April meeting on its plans and agreements.

"It has been our belief that the financial stresses caused by the pandemic will to a degree accelerate the mergers and closures we have seen in New England over the past decade or more," Schall said. "We continue to keep a close watch on all our institutions with the vast majority remaining in good standing with the Commission’s standards. Our institutions are remarkably resilient and have made the necessary adaptations required for them to continue to serve their students well."

The Board of Higher Education has been working with Becker for months and helped ensure that all of its educational programs have at least one transfer option to another school. It also established an informational website for the public on the closure.

A state law gives the Board of Higher Education the ability to push for comprehensive options for students when a college is closing. Under that power, the board is also reviewing Becker's budgets and transfer agreements.

Higher education experts have warned in recent years that small colleges in particular may struggle to survive amid rising costs of educating students and a demographic trend in which fewer high school students are graduating in the Northeast.

Photo | Grant Welker
Becker College's Spruce Hall

"Becker’s demise is sad and foreshadows things to come in higher education for smaller schools," said Scott Latham, a business professor at UMass Lowell who studies higher education. "If you look at the data on recessions, for example, most companies fail after the recession, not during. Why? They do everything to survive, but it comes at a cost of long-term viability. You will see more and more small colleges going belly up in the next few years."

"Becker did everything they could, but ran out of tricks to survive," Latham added. "Collapse never happens during the crisis, it happens after."

Becker, Latham said, lacked enough of what makes colleges successful today: economies of scale with tens of thousands of students, world-class educational programs, a vibrant campus life, or high-profile athletics. "Without two out of three of those criteria, then you are going to struggle," he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has also dramatically increased costs for colleges, including for testing and moving classes online, while cutting revenue.

“Ultimately, the impacts of COVID-19 turned what was a very challenging situation into an unsustainable situation,’’ Becker President Nancy Crimmin said in a statement.

Becker had been working with an unspecified partner with which it would have shared some operational costs, but those talks fell through in January.

Becker calls itself one of the 25 oldest institutions in the United States, tracing its origins to the founding of Becker's Business College in 1887 and Leicester Academy in 1784. The institution first started calling itself Becker College in 1990 and received authority to grant bachelor's degrees in 1991.

The school's leadership said in 2019 it was working with a consultant to find ways that it could stay ahead of changes in higher education and wouldn't shy away from big-scale changes if needed.

Grant Welker
An old Becker College building formerly used for functions has been renovated into a new home for MassDiGI, lab space and other uses.

“We’re not going to just sit by and let higher education change around us,” Crimmin said in a WBJ interview at the time.

The college has 50 full-time faculty and 162 part-time, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Its endowment stood at a small roughly $5 million as of 2018, according to the center.

Becker's video game design and esports programs, among its best known, will live on through an agreement announced later Monday by Clark University.

Becker created the country's first esports management program and was the first college in Massachusetts to offer scholarships to varsity esports student-athletes. It also formed a varsity team to play Overwatch, an online first-person shooter video game. Last year, its undergraduate video game design program was rated second in the country by The Princeton Review.

The school also hosts the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, known as MassDiGI. WPI said Monday it has offered to host the institute.

Becker said decisions for its campus buildings will come later. The school owns 31 buildings in Worcester, according to the city's assessors office, largely in a residential area west of downtown along William, Cedar and adjacent streets.

Becker will be the second Central Massachusetts college to close in the past three years. Atlantic Union College in Lancaster closed in 2018, and said in February it reached an agreement in principal to sell its campus.

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, Mount Ida College in Newton became a satellite campus of UMass Amherst, and Wheelock College was taken over by Boston University in 2018. Pine Manor College in Brookline said last year it would become part of Boston College.

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