‘It’s precarious’: Can Hampshire College’s experiment in higher education survive?

Signs referring to Hampshire College’s troubles were seen inside Franklin Patterson Hall in March. (Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)

Hampshire College has endured much this year: dire fiscal warnings, speculation about mergers, an abrupt decision to halt recruiting and reduce enrollment, a prolonged student occupation of the president’s office, the sudden resignations of that president and leading trustees.

Now, this icon of alternative higher education — where no admission tests are considered and no one gets a letter grade — is fighting for its life, embarking on a frantic fundraising campaign and an urgent effort to cut expenses without losing its soul.

Whatever Hampshire’s fate, its travails serve as a case study for the growing ranks of small liberal arts schools in financial jeopardy. For private colleges, pressures have intensified in regions where the student supply is stagnant or dwindling. Several here in New England are closing or merging. Others around the country have slashed prices, hoping to generate buzz and revenue.

To avoid shuttering, Hampshire is banking on the goodwill of alumni and others with allegiance to an unconventional brand developed since the college opened here in 1970 as an experiment that offers no preset majors and lets students design their own path to a degree.

“It’s a very spirited community, a very strong sense of mission,” said Barbara E. Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, the region’s college accrediting agency. “They want to make this work. Time will tell.”

But, she said, there’s no denying the school’s plight: “It’s precarious.”

Hampshire trustees took an extraordinary step Feb. 1, voting to forgo enrolling a full new class this year as they explored restructuring through a merger or other partnership. The decision meant the student body of 1,120 would shrink in the fall to about 600. As recently as 2013, enrollment had topped 1,400.

Mounting backlash to that decision led President Miriam E. Nelson and two board leaders who supported her to resign. The board voted April 5 to set the merger talk aside and focus on fundraising to plug budget deficits and rebuild. Ken Rosenthal, 80, a founder of the college, was named interim president. He announced his annual salary will be $1.

Jolted by the tumult, students and faculty say they want to preserve a school that produced notable graduates, including filmmaker Ken Burns and Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. But they are also bracing for the unknown.

Ronan Levy, 18, a first-year student from Connecticut, took part in the sit-in at the presidential suite. Students hauled in mattresses, stuffed animals, granola bars and other gear, decorating the office with protest art as Nelson was forced into makeshift quarters for two months. Levy said she hopes to finish her degree at Hampshire but applied to transfer elsewhere as “a backup plan if things suddenly go down the tubes.”

Hampshire College students Naia Tenerowicz, left, and Savvy Cornett talk during a sit-in at President Miriam E. Nelson’s campus office in March. Nelson resigned April 5. (Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)

Behind every struggling college lies a unique set of questions about its price, curriculum, faculty, management, reputation and marketing. Many prospective students these days are hunting for the best value or a degree that will put them on a fast track to a good job. Hampshire and other liberal arts schools reply that the critical thinking skills they teach are essential for career success.

But demographics also pose a major challenge. It’s hard for regional colleges to recruit when the number of high school students in those regions is flat or declining. It’s especially hard in places with an abundance of colleges — like New England.

Here in Massachusetts, analysts estimate the high school class of 2018 was 3 percent smaller than the class of 2008. In neighboring Vermont, the graduating classes shrank 25 percent in that time. That is one factor behind recent and pending closures in those states of Southern Vermont, Green Mountain, Atlantic Union, Mount Ida and Newbury colleges and the College of St. Joseph. Wheelock College last year folded into Boston University.

Market tremors are not confined to the Northeast. Inside Higher Ed and Gallup found in a national survey of college and university presidents that one-third predict six to 10 schools will close this year. Nearly as many believe more than 10 will close. Moody’s Investors Service estimated last year that about one of every five small private colleges is “under fundamental stress.”

“I don’t understand how anyone in private higher education should be overly optimistic,” said Ronald A. Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond. The private liberal arts school in the Virginia capital, with 4,000 students and an endowment of more than $2.5 billion, is well-positioned to ride out the turbulence. But with tuition, fees, room and board exceeding $60,000 a year at his school and many others — before discounts and financial aid — Crutcher said he wonders when the sticker price for private colleges will hit a ceiling.

“I would venture to say there’s schools in Virginia that are nervous,” he said.

Sweet Briar College, in Amherst County, Va., recently survived a near-death experience. Leaders of the women’s college announced it would close in 2015 because of financial distress, but graduates and others mobilized to save it through fundraising and restructuring. The college, which had 337 students in the fall, lowered its sticker price in an effort to boost enrollment. Tuition, fees, room and board for the coming year will be about $35,000.

Many in higher education dismiss price cuts as gimmicks. Hampshire last year considered and rejected the idea. Its total charge this school year is about $63,000, although nearly all students receive scholarships and grants.

Data reveals a tenuous situation. Net tuition revenue — what Hampshire receives after discounts and financial aid — has fallen since 2015 at an accelerating rate, with this year’s decline projected at 11 percent. The $52 million endowment provides scant cushion. Even seemingly modest drops in revenue can do major damage to a school as small as Hampshire that relies on close faculty contact with students. Two months before Nelson took office last summer, she learned the college had missed its enrollment targets for the entering class by 19 percent.

“We need to report that we are deeply sobered by the school’s fiscal state,” an independent group of prominent alumni, parents and former trustees wrote March 26 in a letter to the campus after receiving an in-depth briefing. Burns, who graduated in 1975, was among them. Time, they wrote, “is not on the College’s side.”

Those realities weighed on the board of trustees, said Kim Saal, 66, who was vice chair of the board until he resigned April 5. One of Nelson’s key backers, Saal was among the college’s first students in 1970 and fervently supports its ideals. But he said he grew convinced of the need to reboot Hampshire and pursue what Nelson called “a strategic partnership” with an outside entity. For too long, he said, the college had relied on emergency gifts and other improvised measures to balance its books.

“The road we were traveling down,” Saal said, “the college was about to close.”

Critics say Saal and Nelson overreacted and failed to engage key constituents. Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, a professor of management at Yale University, said it was a prime example of “lazy boards falling victim to lack of imagination.”

Sonnenfeld said it was “self-destructive” when Nelson and the board closed off a crucial revenue source by choosing not to enroll a full class in the fall. Explaining that decision, Nelson said she feared Hampshire could not guarantee new students the same level of education for the next four years. Sonnenfeld scoffed at that rationale.

“There’s no limit to what the imagination could come up with to bail them out,” he said.

Nelson, in a farewell letter, lamented that she and the board had been forced to make “very tough decisions without putting them up for collective debate” — steps that provoked “anxiety, sorrow and anger” on campus.

Hampshire has enormous assets that set it apart from other struggling colleges, including its placid 800-acre campus in a Connecticut River Valley hub of learning. Together with the public University of Massachusetts at Amherst and private Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, Hampshire belongs to the Five College Consortium. Leaders of the other four schools — all far older and wealthier — helped conceive Hampshire in the 1950s and ’60s. They envisioned an outside-the-box school, unencumbered by tradition and rules, with students and faculty free to roam across disciplines.

To a large extent, that’s what happens.

Hampshire students move through three steps, called “Divisions,” and execute an ambitious independent project in their final year. Professors give them narrative evaluations instead of letter grades. When students finish their projects, they ring the brass Division Free Bell that hangs in the library portico. They also are allowed to take classes for no extra charge at the neighboring schools, using a bus network that links the consortium. (Some at Hampshire with an eye on graduate school confess they like having a few letter grades on their transcripts.)

College routines are continuing this year, in surreal contrast to feverish talks among administrators, faculty, trustees and alumni about how to save the school. A visit in March found students immersed in seminars on brain plasticity, indigenous sovereignty and theater education for schoolchildren.

Hampshire students participate in “Classroom Drama,” a course taught by Natalie Sowell, center. (Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)

Sula Gordon, 19, a second-year student from Rhode Island, said after the theater class that Hampshire drew her because of its emphasis on projects.

“You’re not just studying so you can spit out words and get a diploma,” she said.

Gordon said she plans to return in the fall in part because she feels “cornered by the situation” and doesn’t have a better option.

Rosenthal, the interim president, is striving to prevent a student exodus.

“They always say your best customers are your current customers,” he said. “Let’s try to bring them back.”

In a letter to the campus Thursday, Rosenthal said the college must raise $15 million to $20 million over the next year and perhaps $100 million over the next five or six years.

“It’s not unprecedented, and we’ll have to move fast and work hard, but I’m optimistic,” he wrote. “Alums, parents, and friends are already making major gifts.”

One group called A Campaign for Hampshire College said it has collected pledges of more than $2.6 million.

As of late March, Hampshire said it had 101 faculty members and a staff of 295, plus 13 adjunct instructors. Those numbers are expected to shrink as enrollment drops, but professors hope to minimize cuts. Some are looking for visiting positions at neighboring schools until enrollment rises again.

“To avoid a death spiral, it is crucial not to have layoffs,” said Salman Hameed, an associate professor of integrated science and humanities. He and others want to restart student recruiting as soon as possible, probably for students to enter next spring, and ramp up fundraising.

“We have momentum,” he said. “We need time to figure things out — how Hampshire can develop into a new kind of institution.”

Safia Francis, 20, from Tucson, is among many watching and waiting. The second-year student is exploring urban design.

“I’m hoping the idea that created Hampshire and brought me and my friends and classmates here will continue to keep going,” Francis said. “If everyone is miserable and scared the entire time, it won’t be a good place to be.”

Students in the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College. (Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)


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