In a dank basement of a 113-year-old building in Boston, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology’s new president Aisha Francis struggled to turn the key to a classroom where — when school is in session — students learn how to fix cars.
"They learn to take apart and rebuild a transmission, so they have to be able to do that and have the transmission run," Francis explained, jiggling the lock until — finally — the door creaked open.
Inside, the windowless classroom was empty but fumes from students’ previous hands-on work lingered in the air like an omen.
Founded in 1908 with a legacy gift from Benjamin Franklin and a matching gift from Andrew Carnegie, the institute is one of New England’s oldest technical colleges. It’s also emblematic of small private colleges in New England that have struggled to survive and have received a temporary jumpstart from a jolt of federal COVID-19 relief funds. It’s unclear how long the reprieve will last.
Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, sometimes known by the acronym BFIT, is trying to secure its future by selling its aging building, constructing a new campus closer to its core market and working with employers to establish advanced technical programs. Administrators also predict its existing programs can still attract students.
"Enrollment across higher ed declined," said Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "Students were frustrated with the online experience, and a lot of families had less of an ability to pay."
The college is in the process of closing a multi-million-dollar deal on this red-brick building in the city's South End that was designed for traditional lectures rather than technical courses.
Its academic program includes degrees in high-demand fields, everything from HVAC technology and electrical engineering to construction management and opticianry, serving mostly low-income students from Boston and surrounding cities who are the first in their family to go to college. Nearly all of them receive financial aid.
"We serve a minority of minorities community, mostly Black and Latino," Francis said. "Our community members have been very impacted in terms of death rates, in terms of the rates of contracting the virus and loss of work, not just for them, but for people in their household."
Benjamin Franklin was in financial trouble well before the pandemic. Facing a $5 million operating deficit, previous administrators were desperately seeking a merger with nearby Wentworth Institute of Technology, but Francis said those talks stalled and its board of trustees voted in November to move forward alone.
"We have a future-forward strategy that really rests on us as an independent college," Francis said.
The New England Commission on Higher Education, a regional accrediting body, had put the independent college on notice in October about its financial situation, after the number of new students plummeted — 30 percentage points — and COVID-19 forced instructors to move courses online.
The pandemic cost the school more than a million dollars in lost tuition and added expenses. Under last year’s CARES Act and this year’s American Rescue Plan, the college has received $4.2 million in federal funding. Statewide, colleges have collected more than $1.4 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In all, Congress has funneled $69 billion to more than 5,000 colleges in the country.
It’s a windfall for small schools that have struggled to attract students during the pandemic.
Besides BFIT, small private colleges in Massachusetts that have faced financial challenges and have benefitted from the federal funding include Emmanuel in Boston ($6.5 million), Nichols in Dudley ($3.1 million) and Hampshire in Amherst ($6.1 million).
Kelchen said the funding will only stop the bleeding for the short term.
"At least half of the money from the CARES Act had to go directly to students," he explained. "And that can indirectly help colleges because if you give students money, they can better pay the college. But this money probably doesn't make up for all the losses that colleges face, and it won't make up for the long-term structural issues that many of these colleges have in trying to balance their budgets."
Because the number of new high school graduates in New England and the Midwest has been declining, small private colleges have faced financial challenges. Some have closed in recent years, including, in Massachusetts, Mount Ida and Newbury in Newton and Becker in Worcester. In Vermont, three colleges shut down in 2019, with another, Marlboro College, agreeing to merge with Emerson College in Boston.
Even before the current crisis, one higher education analyst aggressively forecast a dreary future for many colleges, predicting a quarter of them would go out of business in the next decade.
Benjamin Franklin has used part of its $4.2 million — $761,000 — to reduce students’ unpaid balances incurred after March 2020, when the pandemic shut down the campus.
On the Boston campus, Francis indicated BFIT is still facing a deficit but administrators are working this summer to bring the budget into balance.
"We're much closer to that now than we were at the time that we were put on notice,” she said.
Sitting in the college’s library with a portrait of Benjamin Franklin peering over his shoulder, CFO Kevin Hepner said administrators used the first round of funding to respond directly to the pandemic.
"We had to hire safety consultants to help us figure out how we could operate safely," he said, wearing a blue bowtie. "It's all the cost around personal protective equipment, installing glass shields, all of those types of expenses."
Hepner said the second round of funding allowed the school to recoup tuition and other lost revenue.
"We used to have rental income," he said. "We had to close the building. When we went into quarantine, we lost all that."
Looking forward, Hepner said administrators are re-examining the college's core competencies and asking how they can use them to generate income outside of its traditional technical programs — working with employers in advanced manufacturing and green technology.
He's optimistic Benjamin Franklin will bounce back from this public health and financial crisis.
"The world is catching up to what we do and the importance of technical education," Hepner said.
Administrators say they expect the sale of Benjamin Franklin's building to close later this year and its new campus — in Roxbury's Nubian Square — to open in 2023.
Diane Adame contributed to this report.