The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hampshire College, facing financial challenges, weighs whether to enroll a new first-year class

Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. (Hampshire College) (Hampshire College)

Hampshire College disclosed Tuesday it is considering not enrolling a new first-year class in the fall because the school faces significant financial challenges -- a potentially major disruption to the admission cycle that raises questions about the school’s future.

The liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., said it "will not close.” With 1,175 students, Hampshire offers interdisciplinary education without majors or course grades. Students work with faculty to develop a thesis project before they graduate.

The college, which will turn 50 years old in 2020, belongs to a well-regarded consortium that allows cross-registration at nearby Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. One of Hampshire’s best-known graduates is documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

But Hampshire President Miriam E. Nelson, who took office in July, acknowledged that the college must explore far-reaching changes to stay viable. She said the college is searching for "a long-term partner that can help us achieve a thriving and sustainable future for Hampshire.” That could mean a merger, Nelson said, or some other structure. But she ruled out closure.

The potential hiatus in new enrollment comes about two weeks before admissions decisions are released.

“As we embark on this process we’re also carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class this fall, and will work with the trustees to make that decision before the February 1 admissions notification date," Nelson said in a statement. "This decision has significant ethical implications, and must take into account the welfare of our prospective students and community as a whole.”

Many small private colleges face financial challenges. The supply of high school graduates has ebbed in the Northeast and some other regions, and middle-class families often worry about whether they can pay tuition bills. Tuition for Hampshire is about $50,000 a year, plus $13,000 for fees, room and board. To help students, Hampshire offers substantial financial aid and discounts. But that cuts into the school’s bottom line.

“There are bruising financial and demographic realities in play, and we’re not immune to them,” Nelson said. But she said the school’s $48 million budget is balanced and its $52 million endowment has performed well.

“We’re in a position of strength,” said Gaye Hill, chair of the college’s board of trustees. “We can see our way forward for a couple years, but we can’t see our way forward much further than that.”

Hill said trustees were aware that disclosing financial challenges could scare off potential students. But she said the college wanted to be transparent. “Whatever we do, we want to keep the essence of what is Hampshire and go forward with that,” Hill said.