Hampshire College Under Financial Strain to Remain Sustainable

Hampshire College Under Financial Strain to Remain Sustainable

Like many other small private colleges in the Northeast and beyond, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, is struggling to keep its doors open and is turning to alumni to stay afloat, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Hampshire, which sought a strategic partner earlier this year in the face of mounting deficits, has admitted only fifteen students for the fall — the incoming freshman class typically numbers upward of three hundred, according to the Journal — and has had to downsize its faculty headcount through leaves of absence, incentivized retirement packages, and reductions in full-time teaching loads. The failed attempt to find a partner was controversial among the independent-minded small college community and led to the departure of the school's president, Miriam Nelson. As the school, which is nearing its fiftieth anniversary, looks to raise $103 million over the next five years from alumni, philanthropic entities, and other sources, it will operate as a smaller college, with a student-faculty ratio of ten to one.

Non-elite liberal arts schools in the U.S. are under particular pressure as students question the value of racking up large student loan debt in a strong job market. Such schools also are competing for a smaller number of high school graduates, resulting in some being forced to close their doors or merge with another institution. Indeed, the closure rate of nonprofit private colleges, according to Moody's, is projected to triple over the next five years.

Like many small colleges, Hampshire has been offering discounts on tuition in an effort to attract more students. For the 2019-20 school year, the school is projecting a 55 percent discount off its usual $50,800 in tuition and fees. Financial strain can put a school's accreditation in peril, however, limiting or cutting off its access to federal student loans or grants. The New England Commission of Higher Education has given the college until November to come up with a realistic plan for fundraising, enrollment, and its long-term sustainability. Filmmaker Ken Burns, a 1975 graduate of Hampshire, is chairing the fundraising effort and has contributed an undisclosed amount that is part of the $9 million the school has raised to date.

"I think we made the right decision not to take a class back in January," board member Dave Matheson told the Journal, "but I think what we had failed to understand was how deep and how committed the community associated with Hampshire was about being independent."