Passersby stroll down Boston’s Berkeley Street, unaware of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Discreetly nestled in the city’s historic South End, the skills-based school plays host to history itself, serving as the only private, nonprofit, two-year technical college in the state. Despite its 105-year past, the institution has proven to be an educational novelty — one restless and ready to rid itself of being this “hidden secret.”
“So many colleges are competing for a voice,” said Mehdi Okasi, BFIT’s associate director of development and communications.
What is impressive, however, is how the college has been able to revolutionize education without owning some Ivy League-level megaphone.
BFIT offers 14 career-path programs, four of which are unique to the school. Their flagship automotive program is the oldest in the country, and touted as the most successful at training students in alternative fuel vehicles. The institution is also the only one in Mass. to offer A.S. degrees in opticianry and electrical technology and B.S. degrees in health information technology and automotive management.
“There’s the difference between getting a job and being on the fasttrack of getting a leadership position once you get that job,” Okasi said, confident that’s what sets BFIT apart. “[Our students] become the managers, they become the guys that run crews.”
Okasi’s confidence is justified. Ninety percent of the college’s graduates are able to swiftly secure employment in their field or go on to continue their education. The college’s graduation rate is also twice that of the national average and nearly triple that of neighboring Massachusetts schools.
Established in 1908, BFIT started with a bequest from Benjamin Franklin and a gift from Andrew Carnegie. With that gift has come a dedication to providing a curriculum representative of an ever-changing industry that’s capable of closing the skills gap.
Inside the tucked away school, students tinker under the hoods of cars brought in by community members. Others run their own opticianry office, crafting and fitting glasses themselves, or build electrical panels with the knowledge of today’s up-and-coming technologies.
“BFIT gave me a lot of hands-on experience, so when I started in the industry, I knew how to use the tools, how to work with the guys and get along with the guys,” acknowledged alumnus Kevin Ho, who now works at Holbrook, Mass.-based Rivers Electrical, in a BFIT video.
At BFIT, what’s equally as crucial is what goes on outside the classroom, however.
Okasi said they often remind the students, “In order to change the community, they need to be a part of it.” More than 1,600 hours of volunteer, civic engagement and service learning have been performed, according to Okasi, who added they’ve worked with Building Educated Leaders for Life, Bikes Not Bombs, as well as several Boston-area high schools and other organizations.
“It’s not just what you learn and what you do in the classroom, but what you do outside,” Okasi said. “We want to instill that value in these students, so that they really do become lifelong learners and make a real impact on their community.”
Yet, while they are in the classroom, BFIT ensures students are receiving the attention they need. Administrators instituted a “Save our Students” system — or “SOS,” for short. Through the system, if a student stops showing up to class, a message gets sent to everyone involved in that student’s academic life, so an intervention can be held right away.
“We have an intervention in order to increase retention,” Okasi said, noting some students are dealing with homelessness, which is something they want to help combat. “Our admissions staff is more like college counselors than admissions. They know every kid by name, have all of their cell phone numbers. It’s an everybody knows everybody place.”
At nearly 470 students, BFIT operates at a nine-to-one student-to-faculty ratio. What’s more, nearly $1 million in financial aid is awarded annually to 90 percent of the college’s students.
“Enrollment is up, but we still have a long way to go,” Okasi said.
As they keep moving, however, prepare to hear BFIT making more noise.