Turning Around Ben Franklin


You’d think that being the nation’s only private, urban, two-year technical college might be a source of some notoriety, especially if that institution also traces its history back to a bequest in Benjamin Franklin’s will. But even among New England’s higher education community, Boston’s Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT) is a hidden jewel.

The reasons to pay attention to BFIT go far beyond its unique history and status. First and foremost is the success the college has had educating young people who might not otherwise enroll in or graduate from college. Of the 85% of recent graduates who responded to a recent poll, 30% were continuing their education at a four-year college and 67% were employed.

Nearly 80% of BFIT’s students receive financial assistance, and almost 60% are minorities. BFIT’s graduation rate of 54% is three times the Massachusetts average and more than twice the national average for two-year colleges.

The college also partners with 16 Boston Public Schools on “Early Access to College,” a dual-enrollment program that provides high school students who are undecided about attending college with pathways to higher education and promising careers.

The key to the college’s success is intensive, personalized student support. The student-faculty ratio is 12 to 1, and many non-teaching faculty and staff provide advising and coaching that focus on students’ personal challenges in addition to academics. A few years ago, BFIT launched “Save our Students,” an email-based early warning system designed to immediately alert a student’s faculty advisor and allow the advisor to intervene at the first sign that the student is faltering.

BFIT’s academic programs focus on the practical, ranging from computer, electrical and pharmacy technology, to a number of engineering fields, to opticianry, automotive and emerging “green” technologies. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for many of these fields is far more positive than for the economy as a whole.

From difficult past to bright future

The picture wasn’t always so bright at BFIT. After years of financial woes, the board voted in 2003 to shut the college. I was brought in to execute this unenviable task. But after just one day at the institute, it was clear to me that this was an asset that was too important for Boston’s youth to lose. Instead of developing a shutdown plan, our team developed and implemented changes designed to return the college to its rightful place as a leading destination for students who desire a technical career.

Today, the college is no longer in survival mode. Enrollment has increased in each of the last five years and is currently just under 600, up from a low of 277. BFIT now operates in the black, without tapping an approximately $3 million endowment.

One of the secrets of a successful turnaround has been the partnerships BFIT has forged with businesses like Verizon, NSTAR, CVS, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and a number of area hospitals, all of which employ the college’s graduates. CVS, for example, built the lab in which pharmacy technology students take classes, with the company’s pharmacy staff acting as instructors.

Living history

BFIT traces its history to a bequest Benjamin Franklin left to the city of Boston. The money was to be invested for a century, then used to provide young men and women with the kind of apprentice training that gave Franklin his start. A 1906 gift from Andrew Carnegie matching the amount in the fund started with Franklin’s bequest made the college a reality, and it opened two years later.

BFIT’s 1908 building in Boston’s South End, designed by famed architect Russell Sturgis, is an architectural gem. It includes historic murals painted by Charles Mills that depict key episodes in Franklin’s life. The U.S. Postal Service even made an image from one of the murals into a postage stamp.

The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology community is proud of its history, the unique niche the college occupies and the turnaround that has been achieved. But all that pales compared with helping turn around so many students’ lives.

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Stephen Lozen is interim president of Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

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