Becker College will permanently close after 237 years, but esports will survive

The small private Massachusetts institution could not sustain enrollment declines or the COVID-19 pandemic. Clark University is accepting some students and honoring Becker with naming of School of Design and Technology.
By: | March 29, 2021
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After 237 years of operation, Becker College in Worcester, Mass., announced on Monday it would permanently close before the fall semester, becoming the latest victim of enrollment declines and the unforgiving COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials said they exhausted all possibilities to try to keep the small private college alive but sadly could not find a solution, including a potential affiliation partner.

“We pushed ourselves to develop scenarios in which Becker remained open for another year and beyond. However, those scenarios included more debt, selling assets, and further cutting operations,” said Christine Cassidy, chair of Becker’s Board of Trustees. “We concluded that this would be irresponsible and unsustainable over time. As devastating as closing this institution is, we want this closure process to be one that conveys the maximum possible respect and support for everyone whose lives and careers we know it will affect.”

Becker said it will continue to offer academic and support services for its 2,000-plus students through Aug. 31. It has reached out to several institutions in the region – Assumption University, Worcester Polytchenic University, Worcester State University and others – to try to accommodate admission for them and will refund all tuition students have pre-paid.

Shortly after the announcement, Clark University came to the rescue for a group of students, agreeing to launch the Becker School of Design & Technology on its campus, effectively taking over its undergraduate and graduate-level world-class game design and esports management programs. Clark also says Becker’s students in business, criminology, and computer science can continue their degree paths there.

“We proudly welcome Becker students to Clark University, and we’re thrilled not only to nurture these signature Becker programs, which are already among some of the best in the world, but also to expand them and broaden their scope,” Clark President David Fithian said in a statement. “By merging Becker’s strengths in these dynamic areas with the heft of a Clark liberal arts education, we’re creating an amplified and energized academic experience that uniquely equips our students to confront challenges on a global scale and embrace emerging opportunities in the 21st-century economy.”

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For faculty, the news likely is a bit more dire, although Becker promised to try to help them in their transition, as well.

“Our commitment going forward is to do everything we can to ensure our students finish this year strongly positioned to continue their education, and that they and all our faculty and staff get access to the best education and employment opportunities available,” Cassidy said. “Particularly as a Becker alumna myself, this was an exceptionally painful decision for the Board to come to, but one that followed many months of striving for a viable, sustainable, and responsible path to address the increasing financial pressures on our College.”

Commencement ceremonies will happen on May 8 for this year’s graduating seniors, likely the last large event the college will have.

The closure was imminent

The news was swift but not surprising, especially after a foreboding letter sent on March 2 by President Nancy Crimmin to the Becker community, noting the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education cited a lack of confidence in the college maintaining operations through the fall semester. Crmimin at that time ordered its Office of Admissions and the School of Graduate & Professional Studies to halt recruitment.

For the past two years, Becker officials admitted it had struggled with enrollment numbers and “had taken multiple actions to stabilize its finances.” The pandemic simply accelerated that end. Compared with other institutions in the region, it had little to fall back on, as its endowment paled at just over $5 million in 2018, according to a report in the Worcester Business Journal (neighboring Assumption was $108M, Worcester Polytech was $521M and Holy Cross was $783M).

Becker has not been alone in its struggles. In Massachusetts alone, several colleges either have closed or were enveloped by other larger institutions since 2018, including Mount Ida College, Newbury College, Wheelock College, the Boston Conservatory and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Nationwide, a few dozen colleges also have closed or had to merge because of increased operational costs and students opting not to enroll. Becker lost additional monies due to the pandemic as students opted to remain remote instead of heading back to residential housing on campus.

Still holding out hope a few weeks ago for the future of Becker, which got its start as Leicester College in 1784 and included Eli Whitney among its early graduates, Crimmin told alumni:

“I love everything about Becker: its mission and core values, its close-knit community, and its place not just in the Worcester community, but well beyond,” she said. “I urge you to not lose sight of that during this time, but instead to come together stronger as a Becker Alumni community. I want our students to realize their dreams and passions, reach their highest potential, and be prepared to achieve something great and meaningful in their lives, following the shining example set by all of you. Education will always be the key that unlocks the doors to future success.”

But in the end, with the decision out of her hands and with the Board of Trustees, she realized their was no way to save the college and its doors with close.

“Ultimately, the impacts of COVID-19 turned what was a very challenging situation into an unsustainable situation,’’ Crimmin said.