Will COVID-19 claim Becker College?

Worcester college on the ropes after remote fall semester

WORCESTER, Mass. — Tiny Becker College can clearly compete with the big boys in one arena. Last year, the Princeton Review ranked the Worcester institution #2 in the U.S., Canada and internationally for the study of video game design. Becker was just behind the University of Southern California and just ahead of New York University.

Where Becker can’t compete, however, is in finances. And that may have finally caught up with the college, which was established in the late 1700s. The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education blamed COVID-19 for pushing Becker to the point of possible no-return, saying in a statement Tuesday, “The institution is unlikely to sustain full operations through the next academic year.”

At the same time, Becker College President Dr. Nancy Crimmin ordered admissions offices to stop recruiting students, though pre-registration was allowed to continue.

“As we have been balancing the ongoing educational responsibilities of day-to-day life here on campus, we have also been working with the Board of Trustees on how to continue operations with such financial challenges,” Crimmins wrote in a statement. “While we have been collaborating closely with the Board, the ultimate resolution rests with them, and any decisions they make will prioritize the needs of our students.”

Becker’s problems escalated last summer when it made what it called the “difficult” decision to not have students return to campus. At the time, COVID-19 cases were surging in many parts of the country. College administrators felt it would be irresponsible to bring students from 42 states into an urban campus – or to the in-town campus in nearby Leicester – so the school went fully remote.

That meant the loss of thousands in room and board revenue.

“Having people on campus is really crucial to getting enough revenue to keep the lights on,” said Peter Cohan, who teaches entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley.

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Becker compounded the revenue problem by promising, as a consolation, a semester of free tuition for qualifying students, something its balance sheet suggested it could ill afford.

For example, its endowment stands at about $4.4 million. By comparison, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has an endowment of more than $800 million.

“The endowment is a pool of money that is typically coming from wealthy alumni,” Cohan said. “It’s an investment fund. It’s pretty much set aside. A little bit of the endowment may go into covering operating expenses if the revenues are not high enough.”

Cohan said it’s likely several institutions had to dip into endowments more than they wanted to this past year because of COVID-19.

“The idea is essentially to have money around for a rainy day, and that’s certainly what we had since last spring,” he said.

In all probability, Cohan said, other institutions will have financial difficulties similar to Becker going forward, as well.

In Leicester, Becker has had a second campus for more than 60 years. With a sweep of his arm, Town Manager David Genereux showed all the college owns in town, including 3/4 of the town common and the row of antique houses across the way.

“We’ve had a great working relationship with them over the years, so any change will be difficult,” he said. “And we really hate to lose the kids, but we’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Genereux said the local businesses will also hate to lose the kids.

“It’s been tough anyway just with COVID-19,” he said. “With the prospect of it being more long-term or permanent, it is concerning to us, absolutely.”

Becker’s demise is a bit unusual in that it’s seen recent success. In 2015, it saw its largest enrollment ever. And since its inception in 2010, that game design program has steadily risen in the rankings.

“We just presented a list recently with Becker on the list,” said Kim Penney, founder of One-on-One College Consulting in Wakefield. “Obviously we’re sad to see this happen.”

Penney said, though small, Becker has some innovative ideas that she would be sorry to see lost.

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“The Esports management program there […] I love it because, not only is it about gaming, it’s also about the sports management piece of running a company that does Esports,” she said.

As for Becker students, some were devastated by the news the college might close.

“Becker’s really become a home for us,” said Emma Schoenfeld, a nursing student. “The community’s so welcoming, the campus is great [and] the nursing faculty really cares about the students. Trying to find another school like this will definitely be difficult.”

“We’ve had a lot of memories made here and definitely late-night studying, and it’s just been a lot of bonds made.” said Samira Raad, also a nursing student. “It’s definitely going to be difficult if we do end up closing.”

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