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After Nearly 50 Experimental Years, Hampshire College Seeks A Merger

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

Hampshire College is one of Massachusetts' most prominent small colleges, known for its progressive approach to education and illustrious alumni.

But its president says that Hampshire is "not immune" to structural forces facing private colleges of its size. Therefore, college leaders are seeking a partner institution who can help keep it running well after its 50th anniversary next year.

In a Tuesday morning letter to the college community, Hampshire College President Miriam "Mim" Nelson disclosed school leaders' "intent to find a long-term partner that can help us achieve a thriving and sustainable future for Hampshire."

Nelson also raised the "significant ethical" question of whether the school will admit an incoming class for this fall. She said the college will make a decision before Feb. 1, the date on which applicants would normally have received their letter of admission from Hampshire.

Nelson cited "tough financial trends" facing all small colleges, and "brutal financial and demographic realities."

In an interview, Nelson enumerated the forces making up "stiff headwinds" for small colleges: intense competition for applicants, smaller crops of high school graduates (especially in New England), an "antiquated business model," and what she called "anti-intellectualism."

Long-term declining enrollment has been a mounting problem for many colleges of Hampshire's size. And it was cited as a reason for other such colleges in Massachusetts to merge or close in recent years, including Wheelock College and Newbury College. (Mount Ida College in Newton, which closed suddenly last year, experienced a long-term enrollment decline as well, but a small uptick in its final three years of instruction.)

Hampshire saw its fall enrollment drop by more than 17 percent between 2010 and 2017, when they welcomed around 1,268 students to campus.

And although Hampshire's "sustainably invested" endowment has earned impressive returns in recent years, it remains small: around $52 million.

That's around 50 times smaller than the endowment of nearby Amherst College — one of Hampshire's partners in the Pioneer Valley's "Five College Consortium" — though the two schools are historically similar in size.

Amid those challenges, Nelson went on to write, Hampshire is in unusually good shape: "Our budget is balanced, our endowment has performed well, and the success of our educational model is confirmed by an array of stellar data."

In that sense, Nelson argued, this public search for that partner is a preemptive move. "We have the time," she wrote, "to undertake the awesome, exhilarating responsibility of evolving education at Hampshire."

Nelson sought to put the maximum possible distance between Hampshire's transformation and Mount Ida's closing, saying, "We're being transparent, we have time on our side — we're really differentiating ourselves from that situation."

In light of the news, state officials said Gov. Charlie Baker will refile legislation that would compel institutions of higher education that are facing financial struggles to disclose their liabilities and contingency plans to the state's Department of Higher Education.

On Tuesday, the governor applauded Hampshire for being "proactive" in seeking a partner to allay financial concerns, calling it "the right approach." Baker added: "The board [of higher education] has pretty decent tools they've develop administratively" to monitor colleges' solvency.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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