For decades, Bay State College has welcomed students to classes in a swanky, marble-floored office building in downtown Boston.
But only a trickle of students arrived for classes this week, following news that the college could lose its accreditation — and its ability to award degrees — by summer.
Pedro, a 21-year-old nursing student who wanted to give only his first name, said he was devastated by the news.
“No one was expecting this,” he said. “We pour a lot of money [into tuition] and change our lives to be able to come to this school.”
The New England Commission on Higher Education announced Monday that it would rescind Bay State’s accreditation, ending the college’s access to federal dollars and authority to grant degrees. The decision is set to go into effect on Aug. 31, although Bay State has said it will appeal the decision.
The commission cited a half million dollar operating deficit at the college and Bay State’s failure to finalize “even one” plan to wind down programming or help students as its financial troubles mounted. Bay State officials blamed the pandemic for a slowdown in enrollment that has left the college with fewer than 300 students.
A problem that predates the pandemic
Experts say Bay State’s problems run much deeper than Covid, and are part of a yearslong trend of small, private college closures that is expected to pick up as federal pandemic relief dollars dry up.
“I think we're just at the beginning of seeing another wave of closures,” said Michael Horn, co-author of the book "Choosing College: How To Make Better Life Decisions Throughout Your Life." “The reality is that when a college closes, that's a sense of a student's identity.”
Horn said a record-setting amount in federal COVID-19 relief — $69 billion since 2020 — has propped up colleges that were already operating on shaky financial ground before the pandemic. He wouldn’t name names, but said these struggling schools were already facing nearly 20 years of enrollment declines, particularly in New England.
The problem was already sweeping the industry prior to the pandemic, according to an analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education. It found an average of 20 campuses closed each month between 2014 and 2019. The trend then slowed in 2020, but there’s been a slight uptick in closures over the past two years. A new report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the National Student Clearinghouse found that 30 colleges closed in 2021, and another 48 shuttered last year.
SHEEO senior researcher Rachel Burns said it’s hard to predict what will happen next at many small colleges, and much depends on how they're using their Covid relief funds.
“I think every institution has managed their emergency funding differently,” Burns said Rachel Burns. “There may be some institutions that have been able to sort of spread it out and will continue to function at a loss, but without needing to close for another year or so. There are some that are kind of recognizing that that extra funding is gone and that's catching up with them.”
The SHEEO report investigated the impact of more than 460 college closures on student outcomes and found about 50 percent of students whose colleges closed, whether abruptly or planned, never went on to complete their education.
For-profit schools often brand themselves as serving mostly working-class adults and low-income students of color, but their graduation rates are often low. At Bay State, for example, 17 percent of students graduate in four years, according to the school’s website.
Those poor outcomes and questionable recruitment and educational practices have attracted legal and political scrutiny in Massachusetts and other states. For-profit giants like ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges closed amid lawsuits by attorneys general in several states, including Massachusetts. Those closures left thousands of students without a degree, and often saddled with debt and skepticism about the value of a college education.
Earlier this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized the Department of Education for being slow to put Bay State under federal oversight, given the concerns about its financial health. Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley followed with a letterto NECHE, urging the commission to scrutinize Bay State and take any necessary action against the college, including rescinding its accreditation.
Uncertainty for Bay State students and staff
Former Bay State employee Raymond Guillette said he was not surprised by the accreditors' ultimate decision. The college promised classes that did not exist, or were canceled suddenly, and Guillette said his fellow advisors sometimes ignored students' phone calls.
"From the moment I hit the deck, I saw around me real signs that they were not what they appeared to be," he said.
Guillette lost his job last spring, shortly after NECHE put Bay State on probation. Guillette said he still keeps in touch with former and current students, many of whom are afraid for the future and uncertain whether their Bay State degree or credits will be honored.
“Fear is setting in. 'Is my degree accredited? Am I going to be in trouble if I apply for a masters degree? What should I do?” he said, echoing calls he’s received this week.
Interim president Jeff Mason declined several requests for an interview. A public relations firm hired by the college declined to elaborate on the status of Bay State’s appeal.
Other students are also afraid they’ll delay their ability to enter the workforce and earn a paycheck if their graduation is delayed by a semester. No one wanted to be identified, citing concerns that speaking out could hurt their future job prospects.
“That’s six months without a good salary living in an expensive area,” said one nursing student who did not want to use her name.
Standing on the sidewalk outside of the school's entrance, looking up at the mostly empty classrooms, she said politicians and the media have cast Bay State in a negative light while the campus community has been overwhelmingly supportive.
“Our professors are up there talking to us, trying to make us feel better, when we know that they are in the same position that we are,” she said.
Pedro, the nursing student, said he feared speaking out about Bay State's problems would devalue his degree. And he said administrators told him they would help him transfer the academic credits he earned at Bay State at the end of the spring semester.
But still, he worries.
“I want to make sure that my classmates all succeed," he said. "We all came in here with very high expectations for our careers — our futures.”