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Becker College Reverses its Course

Becker College President Robert E. Johnson, far right, walks with students on campus. (Photo courtesy of Becker College)Becker College President Robert E. Johnson, far right, walks with students on campus. (Photo courtesy of Becker College)

­When Sweet Briar College abruptly announced that it would close earlier this year, despite having an $85 million endowment and a committed alumnae base, it raised the question of whether small, private four-year colleges are viable enterprises in the 21st century. If a school with as many resources at its disposal as Sweet Briar could not make it, what school could?

The tables turned when Sweet Briar alumnae and faculty rallied together to save the 114-year-old all-women’s college from closure. Their efforts resulted in a court victory that will keep the college open for at least one more year, proving the school’s detractors and pessimists alike wrong.

While Sweet Briar captured national interest for its dramatic tale of averted disaster, the core problem was a prosaic one. The school’s enrollment numbers were low, and the school was not taking in enough money in tuition.

Declining enrollment at a tuition-driven school is a deadly combination. The fate of many schools is a testament to that, such as St. Paul’s College, which closed in 2013, or Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore, which closed this summer. Approximately 25 colleges have shut down in the past decade, and more than 40 have merged with other institutions.

While some schools are not nimble enough to survive in hard times, others thrive in adversity. One such school is Becker College, located in Worcester, Mass., a state where competition is rife among institutions of higher learning. In the Boston area alone, there are 53 schools, and Worcester, less than 50 miles west of Boston, is the center of a consortium of 12 colleges and universities.

Becker’s story is all the more remarkable because its transformation occurred during the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession. At a time when many schools were simply focused on regrouping, Becker underwent a renaissance.

Starting from the bottom

­The school’s history stretches all the way back to 1784, but, prior to 2010, its cachet was limited to the Worcester area, where it was often regarded more on par with a junior college. Leading up to 2010, the school faced a series of setbacks. Former President Kenneth E. Zirkle resigned in the summer of 2008, leaving the school in the hands of the board and an interim president. Almost immediately after that, the recession hit.

“­Things were in quite a disarray,” says Arthur P. “Jay” DiGeronimo, chair of the board of trustees.

All schools felt the pinch, not just Becker. DiGeronimo says Becker’s tuition-driven financial model turned out to be a “saving grace.”

Never reliant on an endowment, operations could continue much as they always had without too much of a shock to the system.

Nevertheless, the situation was far from ideal. ­The school had a tiny institutional endowment of less than $1 million, but, more critically, the school seemed unmoored and lacking in a clear mission.

“Becker didn’t know who it was anymore,” says DiGeronimo. “We were what they call in law a tabula rasa—a clean slate.”

For students, Becker was a questionable proposition. ­The average graduation rate between 2009 and 2012 was 28 percent, and the school was expensive, with an average net price of $27,258 in 2012.

Washington Monthly published an article in 2014 listing the “worst colleges” in America, based on factors such as net price, average student debt, loan default rates and graduation rates. Becker College made the list.

It was with these concerns hanging over their heads that the board chose Dr. Robert E. Johnson as the school’s 10th president in 2010.

Johnson had never been a school president before, but he did have extensive experience at four different institutions of higher education as a senior vice president, vice president, vice provost and in enrollment management.

One of Johnson’s mantras is, “If you do what you’ve always done, you will do what you’ve always done.” Within days of arrival at Becker, Johnson realized that Becker would have to change its modus operandi.

“We just created efficiencies,” Johnson says. “We began to operate more like a business.”

Soon after Johnson arrived on campus, he discovered that the school had overspent its financial aid budget for that fall by $2 million and had overspent by $1 million the previous year. Clearly, such a situation would not be sustainable for a tuition-driven school with an annual budget of approximately $35 million.

In those first two months, Johnson also discovered that the equivalent of 200 students had not paid their bills. “By the end of that year, we had purged most of those individuals from our rolls. Some of them did come up with the money,” Johnson says. “We began, essentially, to require students to pay their bills before they arrived at college.”

As he set about putting the school’s finances in order, Johnson saw that the school had many strengths, such as its nursing, game design and veterinary programs. What the school lacked was a “brand,” which, as Johnson points out, was both good and bad. Without a brand, students outside the Worcester area would not necessarily be drawn to Becker. At the same time, it meant that Becker was free to define itself, rather than be defined by others.

Johnson says that he believed that he could build a brand and a name for Becker around its star programs and by making a concerted effort to reach out to prospective students from outside the Northeast with better academic qualifications. “It was hard to believe he had not been a president prior to us picking him,” DiGeronimo says.

Growing the Becker brand

Increasing student enrollment is not always a simple feat. Sweet Briar, for example, started a campaign in 2011 to attract more students to the college. Many more students applied to the college, but fewer students actually chose to enroll.

At Becker, enrollments are now the highest they have ever been, at 2,021 students. In 2010, that number was closer to 1,700. At the same time, the academic competitiveness of the students has also improved. “You don’t want to cut out the 5 to 10 percent at the bottom if you don’t have better-qualified students to replace them,” says Kevin Mayne, who joined Becker as the vice president of enrollment management and global strategies in 2012.

Over five years, the average GPA of incoming freshmen rose from 2.6 to 3.1, and the average SAT score went from 850 to 1,050. In 2010, 50 percent of incoming freshmen needed remedial education; now, only 20 percent do. As DiGeronimo, whose wife teaches in the general education department, tells it, “Even my wife said … at graduation … ‘I’ve never seen so many of my freshmen graduate as I have these last two years.’”

As one of the first schools to start a digital games program, Becker was chosen to be the site of MassDiGi, a statewide digital games program. Since its inception in 2011, the program has consistently ranked in the top 10 of its kind in the country by The Princeton Review. The nursing program continues to excel, as does the animal sciences program.

Becker’s national appeal grew, and within a few years the news came back around to the Worcester area, Mayne says. “Locally, people thought Becker was the same school it was 50 years ago,” he notes.

According to Mayne, prior to 2010, about 70 percent of Becker’s students came from the greater Worcester area. Today, 70 percent come from outside the Worcester area.

By 2015, it is clear that Becker has transformed. Alumni have taken notice. Colleen Barrett, alumna and former president of Southwest Airlines, gave the school $1 million in January, the largest gift in Becker’s history. The school’s endowment grew from less than $1 million to $5 million in five years. This year, social entrepreneur Dr. Muhammed Yunus gave Becker the funds to start the Yunus Social Business Centre @ Becker College, the first such center in the United States.

Capitalizing on this forward momentum, the college announced its intention to become a university by 2023. As a university, the college would be able to offer graduate programs and, Mayne says, expand its national and international cachet.

“Having university status would expose us to large groups of students who are looking for a university versus a college,” he says.

In the United States, college and university both signify an institution of higher education, but, abroad, “college” signifies a secondary institution. As a university, Becker could attract more international students, particularly from China and Turkey. As the school expands its academic offerings, it has organized its programs around four distinct academic divisions, which ultimately could become colleges in the event that the institution becomes a university.

Overall, it has been a remarkable transformation. Regarding Becker’s inclusion on Washington Monthly’s “America’s Worst Colleges” list, Johnson says, “That was then and this is now.” He says that Becker is on an upward trajectory.

“If you look at the Higher Education Research Institute out of UCLA, they use a statistical analysis that is [the] industry standard for projecting graduation rates. They’ve been within 1 to 2 percentage points of accurately predicting Becker’s graduation rates over the last 20 years,” Johnson says. “Based upon our most recent data, our current graduation rate for the entering class of 2014 will put us right at the national average for small colleges of our size. [This is the] same thing for retention rates.”

Becker’s recent success has a lot to do with putting the right people in the right places at the right time. In Johnson, the board found a dynamic leader with a viable vision, and the school had good bones in the form of academic programs attractive to students and the job market alike.

As Johnson puts it, “We’re in the people business in higher education. We’re only as good as the people that we employ. It’s pretty much like what Jim Collins talks about in ‘Good to Great’: Finding the right people, putting them on the right bus, making sure they’re sitting on the right seat and that that bus is headed in the right direction.”

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