If you have worked as a college admissions advisor, you have probably heard a good “Hampshire College story” about a student or alumnus who has made good. A friend in the college advising world, Laird Durley, told me of a Hampshire graduate who worked on a dairy farm while she was in school. She developed a cheese culture through her sophomore biochemistry lab, got it to market, bought out the elderly couple who owned the farm and paid off her student loans in two years! She graduated with a triple major in Music, Physics…and Dairy! 

Hampshire College is a small school with fewer than 1,200 undergraduates and no graduate students. It is one of the Colleges That Change Lives. Until the college’s president made a recent announcement that it would not try to fill it’s entering class. I have never visited a college that might eventually close. But after reading the media coverage, I have some thoughts as to why Hampshire could, and how closure might be avoided.

Hampshire College is an expensive school that doesn’t look expensive

Hampshire is located in Amherst, Massachusetts, one of the nicest college towns in America. But the campus is outside of town, in one of the most rustic settings you will find anywhere in America. The Hampshire campus is a blend between a farm, an art school and a Seventies designed college. The mix of buildings is best described as eclectic. The naming of the dining hall for the former food service provider (Saga) adds to this eclectic nature. 

If Hampshire was a small college that subsidized tuition, fees and housing for the full student body, or was a college within a public university system, the appearance of the campus would be far less important than the learning experience. However, Hampshire charged over $50,000 for tuition alone this past year. Whenever I look at a college campus at a private liberal arts college that has such a steep charge, I expect the buildings and grounds to have an expensive feel. 

The educational model has been too expensive to sustain for 1,300 students 

I have visited another school, Cooper Union, that has a minimal campus within New York City. Their educational model is based around a small number of majors (Architecture, Art, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering), a small student body (850 undergrads, less than 100 grad students), tuition subsidies, scholarships and a very small varsity sports program. That model has been sustainable for 160 years. Hampshire’s model might not make it to 50. 

Hampshire College has no defined majors—students design their own—no grades and few required courses. The educational approach is much like going from high school, bypassing college, into a graduate program where your degree has a direction towards a thesis as well as life after the degree is completed. It’s not an easy adjustment for new students. The college currently loses around a fifth of a freshmen class. When I visited I was told that it was common for students to step out for a year or two, then return to complete their degrees. If you step out you pay more to step back in.

Cooper Union operates with an endowment of nearly $800 million. Hampshire College operates on an endowment of less than $54 million. The money has to help fund scholarships or gift aid for nearly two-thirds of the student body and merit scholarships for most of the remaining third. The money is stretched really thin. 

I’m left to wonder if the same endowment better supports a smaller student body. At the very least, a fundraising drive with a marketing call for an affordable education for creative, high-potential student would have raised more money.

An individual program of study at Hampshire is dependent on the decisions of other colleges

Hampshire has been able to offer an open curriculum because its students have access to more than 6,000 courses through the other four of the Five Colleges within and around Amherst. They are Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the flagship university for the Commonwealth State. Hampshire students have typically taken between 4 and 6 courses on the other Five College campuses. 

If Hampshire was not located near the other colleges, it could not afford to offer its curriculum. But by being so dependent on the other schools, it is also at the whims of their administrations. These schools can give priority registration to their own students, or completely drop the courses and majors that attract few students on their campuses. 

Hampshire’s finances and the educational model need to be better aligned to succeed. 

Hampshire’s president has mentioned in the media that the college has been seeking an “educational partner.” The college would need to find a partner who could work with the leadership of the other four colleges and sustain the uniqueness of Hampshire’s educational model.  

That partner would need to dramatically subsidize tuition and fees for a smaller incoming class to earn trust of applicants and their families. This happened when Antioch College (OH) reopened seven years ago. In the 1950s and 1960s Antioch had a peek enrollments of 2,000 students. Today enrollment is around 200 as the full-ride awards are fading away. 

Hampshire could become an undergraduate college within UMass-Amherst. The college and university actually went public on that possibility. Currently Hampshire draws 80 percent of its students from outside Massachusetts. If I was a regent for the university system, it would be fair to ask that the majority of students come from Massachusetts.  It is fair to ask: is there enough demand for Hampshire’s educational model within Massachusetts alone? Or would UMass simply use the Hampshire campus to support existing and new academic and residential programming and drop the open curriculum? That would likely add to the state university’s history, but end Hampshire’s. 

The Hampshire campus could also become a “sustainability center,” “living laboratory: or “living-learning community” for one or more of the other three private colleges in the Five Colleges, all of which have some form of an open curriculum like Hampshire. But the acquiring school(s) would need to purchase the property and negotiate with Hampshire’s creditors to retire the college’s outstanding debts. It would make more fiscal sense to wait until Hampshire actually closed, when they could pay less for the assets and assume fewer liabilities.

Hampshire’s educational model does not deserve to fail. The college has graduated talented people, including documentary producer Ken Burns and noted author Jonathan Krakauer. The ideal would be for the foundation community to provide new funding for student subsidies and the campus, and for the board to appoint a new president to lead a smaller Hampshire College under its open curriculum. The latter would be quite likely, if the former became a reality. 

Want to learn more about how colleges do business? Contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.

2 Comments on “Distant Revisit—Hampshire College (MA)

  1. Nice work and a nice speculation on alternative solutions.

    I think you miss only one point and that is the responsibility of the other 4 college in the Consortium: the presidents of those colleges and their boards and perhaps to a lesser degree the faculties and alumni of those Colleges conveniently forget the origins of Hampshire in the desire of those schools to have a captive alternative to compete with the Pitzers and the UCSanta Cruzs and the Evergreens that we’re springing up in that era, the last great flourishing of college creation in the 60’s and 70’s. They forget, conveniently, how Hampshire was created with— and this is the term used then—“an intentionally impoverished catalog” so that the student would have to take classes at the other 4 colleges…but not vice versa. Also intentionally impoverished (or at least intentionally minimally funded) at the time was the endowment: they wanted a captive alternative college, but they sure didn’t want to dip very far into their own donor list to create or sustain it.

    They all should be ashamed of themselves.

    • I also need to consider that the people who led the other schools over 50 years ago do not lead them today. Today Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith operate around an open curriculum. I would doubt that they did during the late 1960s. Amherst did not admit women until 1975 so the mix of the students in the private colleges was different as well. I also doubt that UMass-Amherst was a comprehensive or as reputable a university as it is today. Your point might be true: successor leaders at the other schools may have lost interest in Hampshire. This, and the college’s limited resources, may now compromise Hampshire’s future.

      As I read your comments, I thought back to Rutgers’ decision to open Livington College as an alternative to all-male Rutgers College and all-female Douglass College back in 1969. The university wanted to create a co-ed, diverse school that offered a more personalized approach in most majors, especially in the social sciences. Courses were four credits each; you took four a term versus five at Douglass or Rutgers. The politics of the students and faculty were more liberal than they were on the other campuses. But in the end Livingston was closed because more Rutgers students wanted pre-professional majors as well as a larger selection of courses. The Livington campus is more residential, but it is not a residential college like Douglass.

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