Fiscal crisis a tough lesson
When Linda Turner sees her students marching into the Urban College of Boston - almost all of them women, and almost all of them coming from work - she thinks of her mother’s words.
“My mother always wanted to go to college,’’ Turner said. “She had a high-school education. My father went to eighth grade. When I came here she said, ‘This is where you can make a difference in the world.’ ’’
In a city teeming with colleges, Turner is president of one of the most unusual. The Urban College serves about 1,200 students a year from a high-rise on Tremont Street. The average student age is about 35, and 96 percent are female. Though it is, in theory, a two-year institution, graduates usually need five to seven years to earn their degrees. It’s a college for people who have struggled to make college a reality.
The heavy tilt toward female students owes a lot, Turner said, to the school’s emphasis on early childhood education and human services management, two female-dominated fields.
The school has, like those it serves, fallen on hard times. For years, the school depended on government largesse that has recently evaporated, and raising money in a recession is proving to be tough work.
“We try to get corporate and foundation gifts,’’ Turner said. “We do get some funds from tuition. It’s very difficult to have our alumni come up with huge gifts. They’re very supportive, but don’t tend to have a lot of money.’’
The college - the brainchild of Robert Coard, head of Action for Boston Community Development - opened its doors in 2001, as part of ABCD. Coard, who died in 2009, was a master fund-raiser who lobbied for federal support that has mostly sustained the school. But an annual federal earmark that brought in upwards of $500,000 a year wasn’t passed this year, precipitating an instant fiscal crisis.
ABCD officials insist that the school will weather the storm, though they don’t say exactly how. While Urban College is now an independent entity, ABCD officials continue to operate in an oversight role.
Tuition at Urban College is low, less than $600 for a three-credit course. But that is sustainable only with the kinds of heavy government and foundation support Urban College is having an increasingly hard time winning.
A frustrated Urban College board member was blunt about the school’s problems. “The real tragedy is that it was all built around one person, Bob Coard, and there was no backup plan,’’ said George K. Regan, a prominent public relations executive in Boston. “A lot of fingers are being pointed, and Linda Turner is being hung out to dry. It’s not her fault.’’ Regan said the school could soon have trouble making payroll, though Urban College officials dispute that.
Turner made a midcareer change to higher education after working in marketing. She says the nontraditional mission of Urban College resonated with her.
“I came here because of the unique mission and also having lived some of the issues that our students go through,’’ she said. Her parents were sharecroppers in Virginia, but she and all of her siblings hold advanced degrees. “I know how hard it is for students to walk into an academic environment. These are women with children, and they’re working. They come in here, and they do their best.’’
Once they get to class, they get support and mentoring to help them succeed. Though the march to an associate degree is lengthy for most of them, Turner said an increasing number are going on to four-year schools and finding success.
Like a lot of nonprofits, Urban College is fighting to survive in a tough economy. But if it dies, so might the upward mobility of hundreds of working-class Bostonians, a sobering thought.
“I just want us to continue to offer all we can to these students, who deserve it,’’ Turner said. “They’re not out there taking. They’re giving.’’
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.