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Can small liberal arts colleges survive the next decade?

Why We Wrote This

Demographic changes will mean fewer college-aged people living in the Northeast. How will this change the region’s famously idyllic small colleges – and the towns they call home?

Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Jonathan Wright, a graduate of Hampshire College and builder of the R.W. Kern Center, walks through the center to work on another project in Amherst, Mass. In a sign of New England’s swiftly evolving higher-education landscape, Hampshire College recently announced its desire to merge with another institution, citing financial strain.

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Hampshire College, an experimental school sitting on about 650 acres of rolling farmland and orchards in Amherst, Mass., and another 150 or so in neighboring Hadley, announced Feb. 1 that, in the face of severe financial difficulties, it will be admitting a freshman class consisting of just 41 early-decision students and another 36 students who deferred admission for one year.

The college, while unique in its approach to higher education, faces many of the same challenges faced by other small liberal-arts colleges in the United States, particularly in the Northeast. Recent closings have included Burlington College in Burlington, Vt., Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y., Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., and Wheelock College in Boston.

But Hampshire’s woes have attracted significant attention, perhaps because the school epitomizes many of the qualities that have made small private liberal-arts colleges an attractive option in the past.

Along with Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Hampshire is one of the largest employers in Amherst, a bucolic yet lively town of 40,000 in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley.

“There are hundreds of people who live in the town and hundreds who live in the Valley whose family income comes from Hampshire College,” says Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman. “It has a significant impact on the town.”

The very first lesson Jessamyn West learned upon graduating from Hampshire College in 1990 was one that would foretell the school’s precarious financial position some three decades later.

“When I graduated and grabbed my diploma,” says Ms. West, now a noted librarian, author, and technologist, “the then-president of Hampshire told me how he talked to my dad last week, literally as I’m walking across the stage.”

To West, the president’s message was clear: “Your value is your parents, who paid your tuition,” she says.

West was one of the school’s handful of students who paid full tuition, which at a school that depends on tuition for its operating costs meant “weird perks,” such as getting invited to the president’s house “for some special let’s-drink-champagne-before-noon thing that felt completely inappropriate and awful,” she says. 

And yet her experience at Hampshire was unlike one she could get anywhere else.

“I was not really an outcast in high school, but I didn’t fit in the way I felt like fitting-in people fit in,” says West.

At Hampshire, an experimental school sitting on about 650 acres of rolling farmland and orchards in Amherst, Mass., known for eschewing majors and offering detailed written evaluations instead of grades, West found the intellectual and social nourishment she was seeking.

“I actually kind of wanted someplace where I could just be me and everybody else could be them, too,” says West, who studied linguistics  there. “And Hampshire was like that. And honestly it’s the only time I’ve ever been in a situation like that in my whole life.”

Hampshire, whose current enrollment is 1,120, announced on Feb. 1 that, in the face of severe financial difficulties, it will be admitting a freshman class consisting of just 41 early-decision students and another 36 students who deferred admission for one year. The nearly 50-year-old school, Hampshire President Miriam Nelson announced, would be seeking “a long-term partner that can help us achieve a thriving and sustainable future for Hampshire.”

The college, while unique in its approach to higher education, faces many of the same challenges faced by other small liberal-arts colleges in the United States, particularly in the Northeast. Recent closings have included Burlington College in Burlington, Vt., Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y., Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., and Wheelock College in Boston.

But Hampshire’s woes have attracted significant attention, perhaps because the school epitomizes many of the qualities – small classes, curricular flexibility, a faculty largely committed to teaching as opposed to research – that have made small private liberal-arts colleges an attractive option in the past.

“My colleagues and I have heard from so many far-flung academics who have never set foot on the Hampshire campus but who consider Hampshire very important to the project of the liberal arts in the United States,” writes Christoph Cox, a philosophy professor at Hampshire. “One told a colleague of mine, ‘If we lose Hampshire, we’ve lost the war.’ ”

So far, less than 1 percent of private colleges in the United States have closed in recent years, a failure rate that doesn’t yet confirm Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s dire 2011 prediction that half of the the roughly 4,000 or so colleges and universities in the United States would “be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.

But the pace of closings is rising, according to a 2018 report from Moody’s that finds colleges are closing at a rate of about 11 per year. Many small schools rely on tuition and operate on razor-thin margins, making them vulnerable to downturns. And as these schools close, downsize, or merge with other institutions, those seeking the specialized-yet-versatile approach that small colleges offer – curricular flexibility, small class sizes, opportunities for cross-disciplinary research – will have to look elsewhere.

A demographic cliff

“I don’t think that small size is intrinsically a problem,” says Will Wootton, the former president of Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vt., and author of “Good Fortune Next Time: Life, Death, Irony, and the Administration of Very Small Colleges.” But, he says, “small institutions cannot weather fiscal downturns like big institutions can.”

One of the big threats facing small schools is demographics. As pointed out by Carleton College social scientist Nathan Grawe in his 2018 book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, the population of traditionally college-aged people is set to decline in the Northeast and the Midwest by about 5 percent by the mid-2020s. What’s more, the economic downturn of 2008 led many others to delay starting families. This “birth dearth,” which is set to begin around 2026, could add up to a loss of 15 percent of the typical college-age population. 

The Ivy League schools will undoubtedly survive the demographic shifts, as will other elite schools with large endowments, state schools, and community colleges. But schools with endowments of less than $100 million – Hampshire has about $50 million, compared with nearby Amherst College’s $2.2 billion – are feeling the pinch, according to Moody’s.

But, Mr. Wootton says, small colleges can still thrive if they are nimble – and address a lack of incoming students immediately.

“It’s possible to keep these places going, especially the very small places, because of the local population who needs those colleges,” Wootton says. “They have a great economic impact on their towns and villages.”

‘That’s our identity’

Along with the Amherst College and University of Massachusetts Amherst, the flagship campus of the state system, Hampshire is one of the largest employers in Amherst, a bucolic yet lively town of 40,000 in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley.

“There are hundreds of people who live in the town and hundreds who live in the Valley whose family income comes from Hampshire College,” says Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman. “It has a significant impact on the town.”

Mr. Bockelman, who graduated from Hampshire in 1978, notes that its graduates also have an outsized influence on the region’s economy. “If you looked at Hampshire grads as being part of the Valley and being entrepreneurial in the Valley, you’ll see a much higher proportion than the other colleges.”

He attributes this entrepreneurial spirit – a quarter of Hampshire graduates start their own businesses or nonprofits – to the way the school requires students to create their own courses of study by, for instance, not offering predefined majors.

“You have to be self-motivated,” he says. “And that’s why a lot of students don’t succeed, because they’re used to being in a sort of lockstep version of high school, and that’s what a lot of colleges have become.”

Beyond Hampshire’s economic footprint, the school plays a special role in shaping the identity of the surrounding towns. Hampshire, which admitted its first class in 1970, was formed out a partnership between four other schools in the region – Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Smith College in Northampton, Amherst College, and UMass Amherst – to create the Five College Consortium.

The academic collaboration quickly entered the Valley’s popular consciousness, inspiring the names of several businesses, including a realtor, a moving company, a credit union, and a farm that specializes in heirloom tomatoes. The Five Colleges also serve as an origin story for the characters of Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Gang that, sadly, turns out to be an urban legend.

“We think of ourselves as being from the Five College area,” says Bockelman, “and the town of Amherst takes great pride in having three high-quality institutions of higher education. That’s our identity. And potentially if we were to lose one of those partners, it would be devastating.”

The ultimate cause of Hampshire’s problems, says Bockelman, is America’s widening class disparity. “Higher education is in crisis, and it's become unaffordable to many people,” he says. “And it seems to be moving toward the income inequality that’s really hit a lot of the population in general in terms of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”

‘I’m not going to close’

The walls of Global Cuts International World of Barber Styling, near Hampshire’s campus, are covered with heroes photographed during some of their most iconic moments. Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in 1965. Julius Erving defending himself against Larry Bird on the court in 1984. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands with Malcolm X in 1964. The Four Tops. The Jackson 5.

But the most prominent item on the wall is a huge laminated map of the world, with pins showing each customer’s hometown. Much of the United States and Europe is covered. Same goes for sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. A few pins stand in more remote places, like Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Owner Khayyam Mahdi admits that his cosmopolitan barbershop seems incongruous amid Amherst’s fields and orchards, but, for all its rural New England charm, this town’s cultural currents have long been shaped by the regular influx of students and faculty from around the world. “You would expect a place like this in New York City,” Mr. Mahdi says.

Mahdi estimates that about a third of his customers are Hampshire students. When they visit, Mahdi hopes that they get more than just a haircut. “This is a place where relationships are made,” he says.

Despite Hampshire’s troubles, Mahdi remains optimistic about his shop’s future. “I’m not going to close because they got shut down,” says Mr. Mahdi. “We’re global.”

‘We all missed the window’

For most of Hampshire’s 400 full-time and 50 part-time workers, the announcement that the school wouldn’t be admitting a full-size freshman class in September came as a shock, as it would mean steep layoffs before the beginning of next semester.  

For teaching faculty, the announcement came in the off-cycle in the job market, as applications for positions are typically due in November and December. Most of those laid off on June 30 will have to wait more than a year to begin working again in a comparable position.

“We all missed the window to apply for other jobs that start this fall,” says a Hampshire professor who requested anonymity so as not to prejudice any future employers. “It leaves all of us and our families in desperate situations that we never saw coming.”

Many college professors spend six or seven years obtaining a doctoral degree, followed by several years of postdocs and modestly paid teaching jobs before attaining anything resembling job security, if they ever do so. For those who do, being suddenly hurled back into the academic job market can be daunting.

“A lot of the professors that I talk to are really having a hard time finding work,” says Darcy Daniels, who worked as an adjunct professor of history at Mount Ida College before the school suddenly closed last year. “My former department chair called me into his office, and he asked if I could help him create a LinkedIn account. He was a 20-year tenured professor.”

Ms. Daniels, who is now teaching social studies at a boarding school in Braintree, Mass., considers herself relatively fortunate among her peers, some of whom are considering leaving academia altogether. “In a lot of ways,” she says, “Mount Ida traumatized them.”

For the students of colleges that close after they graduate, it can feel like an important link is broken. Nicole Muschinski, who majored in environmental studies and sociology/anthropology at Green Mountain College, was in Amsterdam last year when she got the news that her alma mater would be closing its doors. “I was surprised, but at the same time I was not,” says Ms. Muschinski, who had been aware that the school had been experiencing financial problems.

Muschinski, who says she just started working “very part time” for Missouri Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that promotes religious response to climate change, says that her school’s closing comes at a time when the world needs more schools like it. “We need places that offer education in sustainability and in environmental studies and environmental justice,” she says. “The fact that it can’t stay open because it can’t afford to stay open is really unfortunate.”

“This hit everybody out of the blue,” says a business owner near Green Mountain College whose establishment is heavily patronized by students and their parents. “It’s definitely going to affect my business.”

The owner, who asked to remain anonymous, lamented the lack of communication between the college and the town in the years leading up to Green Mountain’s closure.

For Wootton, vulnerable schools might seek financial safety in numbers: “In other words, partnerships. Partnerships with equals.”

Partnering with peers was Hampshire’s original plan, and today the school hopes to partner with a more financially secure institution, although none have so far stepped forward.

“I’m hopeful that Hampshire will be the bellwether for the model for how small colleges can survive going into the future,” says Bockelman. “If any college can transform to take on the challenges of higher education, it’s Hampshire College.”

[Editor's note: An earlier version misstated the year that Ms. West graduated from Hampshire College, where classes are named for the year they matriculate, not the year they graduate.]

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