Inside the bright cafeteria at Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury — surrounded by banners that read "Justice" and "Black Lives Matter" — 80 graduating seniors learned last week they had been automatically admitted to Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology.
"You, the class of 2022, are all — all — accepted," announced President Aisha Francis, whose school is moving from Boston's South End to Nubian Square near Dearborn by 2024.
After making the offer official by handing out acceptance letters, t-shirts and other swag, Francis said the goal is simple: remove barriers in the admissions process for students from underrepresented communities like Roxbury.
"We believe that there are ways to take away some of the steps in the process,” she said.
While competitive schools like Harvard are reporting record-high numbers of applicants and low acceptance rates, community and other two-year colleges like Benjamin Franklin have seen their enrollment plunge during the pandemic, especially among Black, brown and adult students. The automatic admission offer is an effort to gradually rebuild the technical college's enrollment, which hovers around 400 students. It's trending up — last fall's numbers were 60 percent higher than the previous year's — but it's still down 20 percent from before the pandemic.
Students who accept the admissions offer will be able to nominate a family member to attend with them. Tuition is not covered, but Benjamin Franklin, which had been on shaky financial ground and sought a merger with nearby Wentworth Institute of Technology, has secured a major $12.5 million gift from the Cummings Foundation as well as $100,000 for scholarships from the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts.
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Benjamin Franklin's approach to trying to rebound is part of broader, national effort to reverse the downward enrollment trend that many colleges are experiencing. Paul Quinn College, a historically Black college in Dallas, announced in February that new students with a 3.0 GPA can bring two of their friends or family members to pursue a certificate or degree.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling this week released a list of more than 200 colleges that are still hoping students will apply for the fall semester. The list includes Hampshire College in Amherst, Nichols College in Dudley, Dean College in Franklin and 12 others in Massachusetts.
"There's a stronger economy now and people are choosing to work instead of go to college," explained Robert Kelchen, head of the department of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Kelchen said schools like Benjamin Franklin are struggling because fewer low-income students are going to college.
“It does seem like more students are looking to go to the selective private colleges that have no space for them, or to the large public universities that do," he added.
While these inventive admissions offers are helping to slow the decline somewhat, Kelchen said, overall, they're not increasing enrollment.
"It's just so competitive when, in addition to community and technical colleges, students can choose from some decent options in the labor market and also four-year colleges also making many of the same offers to students," he said.
Boston leaders like Mayor Michelle Wu hope efforts like Benjamin Franklin's will help to slow the enrollment plunge at the city's technical and community colleges.
"Boston is the mecca of education and higher education — and of opportunity," Wu said, following the announcement in Roxbury. "We hope that this will be a model that we can keep growing and building and to connect this even earlier than senior year."
For now, it's unclear how many seniors at Dearborn will accept the offer, and they have until May 1 to make their decisions.
The announcement certainly surprised students like Ariyah Antoine, a 17-year-old senior from Mattapan.
"I think it's amazing, actually, because they don't do this for many people, and I feel really lucky to go here," she said.
Still, she's debating whether to go to a local two-year college, UMass Boston or Bridgewater State University, or her top choice: Nova Southeastern in Fort Lauderdale.
"I'm not sure yet because I want to leave the state, but this is where the money is, so it might be a good idea to go here," she said.
Plus, she added, without even applying, she's already been accepted at Benjamin Franklin.