The little college that could

The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston’s South End is churning out graduates at a rapid pace, demonstrating that community colleges can deliver on their promise.

Wilkelson Gedeon had his heart set on majoring in engineering at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. But the Arlington native, a self-declared procrastinator, missed the application deadline. After a friend had raved about the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Tech­nology in Boston’s South End, he applied and was accepted to the electrical technology program.

A couple of weeks into the program, he realized that his procrastination wasn’t going to fly in college. So did his advisor. She started by walking him to the school’s academic support center to make sure he was doing his work. A professor stationed there signed off on his assignments. Gedeon soon found his way to the center on his own. “I didn’t need her to hold my hand, because it was second nature,” says the affable 20-year-old.

An intensive academic advising system is one of the key strategies that has put the private two-year college where some of the state’s public community colleges would love to be: 50 percent of Benjamin Franklin students finish their programs within three years, twice the national average for two-year colleges and three times the Massachusetts two-year college graduation rate.

Community colleges, which educate nearly half of all higher education students in the country, are increasingly recognized as indispensible for equipping workers with the skills to adapt and survive in a rapidly changing economy.  Long the neglected step-child of the higher ed system, they are drawing attention these days at the highest levels.

“They may not get the credit they deserve; they may not get the same resources as other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life,” President Obama said last year at the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. “These are places where young people can continue their education without taking on a lot of debt. These are places where workers can gain new skills to move up in their careers.”

Congress authorized $2 billion to fund community college training and education programs over the next four years. Calling community colleges “one of America’s best kept secrets,” Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife—and a long-time community college instructor—is spearheading a national campaign to add 5 million new community college graduates over the next decade. “Our challenge is not just to get students into college,” she said at the White House summit, “but to keep them there and graduate them faster with the skills they need to succeed in the American workforce.”

It’s a challenge that the 450-student Benjamin Frank­lin Institute—whose colonial namesake provided the money that became the school’s original endowment—has been quietly meeting with little fanfare. The school is “dedicated to degree attainment from top to bottom,” says Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council. The council works with Boston public high school students who are transitioning to Franklin and three Boston-area state community colleges. “Increasingly, community colleges are moving in the same direction,” says Sullivan. “But it’s easier for a small institution to move more quickly than a large one.”

The school’s leaders say Franklin uses a “high-tech, high-touch” approach, meaning they combine technology and general education coursework with lots of counseling and generous academic supports. Beyond the classroom, “soft skills” like time management are also integral to the school’s philosophy, so that students like Gedeon learn the meaning of one of the innumerable maxims proffered by the school’s benefactor: “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”

Hands on

In a 1784 pamphlet, Benjamin Franklin noted that most Americans were neither rich nor poor. “Industry and constant employment are great preservatives of the morals and virtue of a nation,” he wrote. To ensure that the middle class virtues that he championed survived his passing, Franklin left 2,000 pounds sterling each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia to provide loans to young married apprentices to set up their own businesses. Franklin himself had benefited from loans to set up his printing shop in Philadelphia. “Good apprentices are most likely to make good citizens,” he wrote in his will.

By 1908, the fund he left was worth about $400,000. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who admired Franklin, agreed to match most of the bequest to help found a school that was originally known as Franklin Union. The school’s first students paid from $4 to $10 for classes such as mechanical construction and industrial chemistry.

Long operating in the red, the college barely avoided a shutdown in 2003. The school’s trustees actually voted to close the school, but students, parents, and staff members protested and the trustees reversed their decision after an outpouring of donations from local foundations, alumni, and others.

Ray Magliozzi, the younger “Tappet Brother” of Nation­al Public Radio’s “Car Talk,” is one of the school’s biggest cheerleaders. “If the school went under, [it would be] a lost opportunity for kids who don’t have many choices,” says Mag­liozzi, who helped raise money for the school and digs up engines and other diagnostic tools for its automotive technology classes.

Like the state community colleges, Ben­jamin Franklin has an open admissions policy, admitting all high school graduates. Students who hold a GED or who have not graduated from high school (including anyone who hasn’t passed the MCAS) can take a placement exam to determine what, if any, remedial course work might be necessary. With technology majors such as computer science, electrical engineering, and automotive technologies, the programs are more focused than a typical liberal arts-driven college.

The school occupies a unique niche in the Bay State’s college rich-universe, providing a technology-driven curriculum to 450 mostly male, mostly minority students that other schools struggle to engage and graduate. African-American males make up 30 percent of the student body; nearly 20 percent are Hispanic/Latino and nearly 8 percent are Asian. About 30 percent of the students are white.

Compared to the state’s community colleges, where average tuition and fees for a full-time, in-state resident are $4,545, Benjamin Franklin isn’t cheap. One year’s tuition in the associate degree program is $14,250. Fees, health insurance, books and supplies, transportation, and personal costs nudge that figure to $20,000 to $23,000. Unlike most public community colleges, the college has some on-campus housing, with 60 students housed on two floors of a YWCA directly across from the college’s Berkeley Street building. With room and board, the price tag jumps to nearly $30,000. Eighty percent of students receive some type of financial help. Wilkel­son Gedeon says that financial aid paid for about 50 percent of his costs. Typically, students leave the school with about $12,000 in debt.

Unlike public community colleges, Benjamin Franklin offers a small number of tightly-structured programs, a far cry from the dozens of courses of study available at most community colleges. There are nine associate degree programs, four certificate degree programs, and one bachelor degree in automotive technology. (Shorter certificate programs are designed for students who graduate from other colleges looking for specific technical training.)

Each student takes a predetermined course load in his or her program each semester, along with general education courses in the humanities, social sciences, math, and sciences. General education is not as tough a sell as it used to be. “When I first started here, there were students that would openly say, ‘Why do I have to take an English class? I just want to work on cars,” says Jackie Cornog, the head of the humanities and social sciences department. “But we are seeing that less and less.”

She thinks that change in attitude might have to do with a competitive job market where students need any skill that is going to give them an edge. Employers who come to the school “talk about how they want employees who are well rounded,” says Cornog, a nine-year veteran of the school. “They don’t want a robot who can just fix something.”

Classes are small, with an average class size of 12.5 students. At Bunker Hill Com­munity College in Charles­town, one of the two state community colleges in Boston, the median class size is 20. Ken­neth and Tamethea Willis of Randolph accompanied their son, Kenneth Jr., to a recent open house at Benjamin Franklin. They were sold on the fact that the younger  Kenneth, who had already been accepted into the automotive technology program, would be one of hundreds not thousands. “It’s a model of nurturing, with the right supports,” says his father.

Most Ben Franklin students are more focused than many students at community colleges or even those at four-year institutions, who often start out with no clear idea about what they really want to do. Be it cars or computers, Franklin students know they want to work with their hands. Those types of deep-seated interests help fuel persistence toward a degree, according to Paul Zarbo, the outgoing dean of academic affairs. “They’ve self-identified as someone who would do well in a hands-on, applied learning situation,” he says.

Ben Franklin students also stand out in another way. Far fewer of them require remedial courses than state com­munity college entrants. During the 2010-2011 academic year, 74 of the 286 incoming students, roughly 26 percent, required some college preparatory course work compared to 61 percent of first time, full-time state community college students seeking degrees.

During the first year, each new student is assigned to an advisor during a two-day orientation. Forty to 45 faculty and staff members advise about 8 to 10 students each. In the second year, students who have a 3.0 grade point average or higher are assigned to the director of advising, who carries a larger counseling load. “Stronger students are allowed to have a little more independence,” says Rachel Arno, who heads advising and monitors the work of nearly 200 students.

Students with lower grade-point averages remain with their first-year advisor. The school prides itself on its SOS system (“Save Our Students”), a sort of educational emergency broadcast system that monitors students’ progress, and prescribes tutoring and other counseling. If a student is having trouble in a course, the instructor will email his or her advisor. The advisor then has 24 hours to follow up with the student to find out what the problems are. A highly-structured program combined with academic supports and advising, say school leaders, means students who persevere, especially the ones that might flounder in the absence of those supports, are better equipped to enter the workforce with marketable credentials.

George Chryssis, who took office as the school’s new president at the start of the year, was already well acquainted with Ben Franklin’s “high-tech, high-touch” approach. The former Wentworth Institute of Tech­nology vice president of executive affairs, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from North­eastern University, arrived in the US from Greece in 1966 with English language skills that needed work. Someone along the way suggested Franklin, so he enrolled in three college preparatory courses—in English, math, and physics to get his bearings. “I remember how caring the Institute was,” he says.

Advisors also find that beyond problems like procrastination or being overwhelmed by a new or difficult subject, there are non-academic stresses that confront students. Most students work and commute to classes. Many students are first generation college students, have families, or are immigrants studying English who have to adapt to the twin challenges of language and culture. “If you are engaged, you can see warning signs very early, so you can intervene,” Chryssis says of the college’s staff.

The supportive environment is not lost on students. “Your intelligence level affects how well you do, but you actively have to try to fail at this school,” says student government president Ken Dunne, who is studying mechanical engineering. “There is so much support available to you and so many people willing to listen that if you want to pass, you will pass.”

College bound

Franklin wrote that an “investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” but making that investment doesn’t always come easy to some students. They may come from families where no one has gone to college or have a parent who was unable to complete school. They need a different type of exposure with the college experience.

Dual enrollment programs are designed to introduce high school students to college and help those students get their bearings once they enter college. Franklin’s “Early Access to College” program currently enrolls students from seven Boston public high schools. According to Joe Boston of the city’s public school partnerships office, the program is geared to juniors and senior students in the “academic middle”—those neither on the honor roll nor failing—who may have had difficulties in ninth or tenth grade. These students want to pursue college, but may not have the grades to attend a traditional college.

Enrollment in the program is simple. A completed application, transcripts, and recommendations are all any student needs to participate. However, students have to be motivated: They receive high school credit and college credit for the courses they pass, but failing grades affect their high school standing.

Up to 150 high school students attend Benjamin Franklin each year through early-college classes, an initiative that state community colleges also participate in. Those taking part are not identified in classes as high school students. Joe Boston, along with liaisons at the participating high schools, keeps close tabs on the young people. He meets with each student four times a semester. One of the messages he passes on to students is that they have an opportunity to prove to themselves that they can succeed in a college environment. “There is so much support available to you and so many people willing to listen that if you want to pass you will pass.”Christina Lee participated in the program. A graduate of Odyssey High School in South Boston who is now in her second year at the college, she was initially put off by the male-dominated environment where females only make up about 12 percent of the student population. But she was finally drawn in by the opportunity to “go to college for free” while in high school.  

Lee took math, computer, and environmental technology courses during her senior year in high school and during the following summer. But when she decided to attend Franklin as a college student, Lee says, she didn’t want studies that were “too challenging.” Since she worked part-time at CVS, she decided to enroll in the pharmacy technology certificate program, which only required five courses to complete.

However, her mentors at Ben Franklin steered her toward a more demanding two-year associate degree program to become an optician, the state’s only such program. Lee, 20, credits them with forcing her to “shoot higher.”

Michael Taylor, the state Director of Workforce Develop­ment, was president of Franklin when the college established the program in 2006. At Franklin, those young people could “act, look, be like a college student,” says Taylor. “It broke down so many barriers about what they perceived college to be and what they perceived themselves to be in terms of their educational ability.”

In one of the school’s new electrical labs, Tracey Arvin’s electrical design and layout students are engrossed in individual projects. First, they must sketch out two separate diagrams of the circuits. A finalized wiring diagram combines all the circuit elements and serves as a road map that shows where the components are located and how they are electrically connected. Once instructors approve the wiring diagrams, students use them to physically wire their lighting projects.

But Gedeon couldn’t get a handle on the wiring diagrams. The moment of truth came when Arvin, the chair of the electrical technology department, told him that he would not graduate unless he knew how to do the diagrams that are stock in trade for any electrician. He failed the course. Students with a C average or better are allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies, so Gedeon was allowed to walk with the class of 2010 last May. But to obtain his diploma, he had to re-take and pass Arvin’s class.

Gedeon finally mastered the diagrams last semester. “I’m great at it,” he says. He is confident about passing the course the second time around, especially since he has already achieved another important academic goal. He was accepted by Wentworth and plans to start classes this spring, contingent on that passing grade.

Scaling up

In 2007, a state task force on retention and completion rates at the public community colleges recommended that schools step up their student advising, mentoring, and other support programs. Several Massachusetts community colleges, including Bunker Hill and Roxbury Com­munity College, are taking part in a national effort funded by the Lumina Foundation, dubbed “Achieving the Dream,” to improve success rates at community colleges. In the wake of such efforts, as well as the new attention the issue is receiving from the Obama administration, it’s worth asking whether the Franklin model, which goes to such lengths to address an individual student’s challenges, can be ramped up from a small school to a larger institution.

Even the smallest community college in the state system, Greenfield Community College, has nearly 2,600 students. Larger institutions are more complex, says Thomas Bailey, the director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. What’s the lesson for a community college? “You have to make a distinction between a student who knows ‘I want to be an automotive technician’ versus somebody who comes in and says, ‘I don’t know what I want to do,’” says Bailey.

Community colleges should not go as far as to demand that every student stick to a precise career path or course of study, says Sullivan of the Boston Private Industry Council. But once a student starts attending, he or she should work on developing a clear plan. “You don’t have to lock in, but you have to be going in a direction for college to make sense,” he says.

Mary Fifield, the president of Bunker Hill Community College, recognizes that, as the state’s largest community college, with more than 12,000 students, Bunker Hill needs to develop a more structured framework to help students succeed. Students who participate in the school’s “learning cluster communities,” taking one developmental course and one content course in the general education program, are showing persistence and completion rates roughly 15 percent higher than the college population at large, she says. Another initiative currently in development, modeled after a program at Florida’s Valencia Community College, would utilize web-based tools and hands-on advising to track every student from enrollment to his or her entry into the workforce.

Fifield hopes to make gains over time. But in comparison with Franklin, Bunker Hill, with its large numbers of part-time and developmental students, “is just a different world,” she says. “We are trying to institutionalize the strategies that have demonstrated persistence among our students.”

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Whether community colleges can profit from the Ben­jamin Franklin model may become more evident as the school ramps up its own programs. Chryssis, the Benja­min Franklin president, says the keys to financial success at a tuition-driven institution with a low endowment lie in enrolling more students. For that reason, administrators would like to add at least several hundred more students and increase the college’s physical footprint.

Faculty hiring will have to receive a lot of attention to ensure that Franklin continues to attract people with the skills to reach students both inside and outside the classroom, says Zarbo, the academic affairs dean. “As you expand enrollment, you also have to expand your sense of community, your academic support efforts,”he says. “And you have to expand and improve your advising effort. You’ve got to keep that, regardless of the number —I don’t care if it’s 700, 800, 1,500—if you want to have the same results.”