IT WAS STILL very much the thick of Eisenhower-era conformity, in 1958, when the presidents of Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst put together a document called The New College Plan. It envisioned a fifth college in the Pioneer Valley that would break from the conventional norms of higher education with a focus on self-directed learning and greater interdisciplinary study.
Twelve years later, the vision matured into reality with the opening of Hampshire College on an 800-acre parcel of former apple orchards and farmland in South Amherst. Now, nearly 50 years after its opening, the once new college is on the ropes. Hampshire announced Tuesday that it is seeking a “strategic partnership” with another higher education institution. While pursuing a merger, Hampshire said it will decide in the coming weeks whether to admit a new class of students for the coming fall.
The school has an enrollment of about 1,400 students. Tuition is $50,000 per year, and room and board adds another $14,000 to the tab, though many students get a sizable discount off that list price.
The college’s innovative approach to learning may be as relevant as ever, maybe even more so in today’s fast-paced era of innovation and disruption of conventions. But small, private liberal-arts colleges, especially those without big endowments that must rely heavily on tuition payments to operate, are a model that looks increasingly unsustainable and subject to those same disruptive forces.
The school’s budget is balanced, and it has a $52 million endowment. But the Hampshire board of trustees chairwoman, Gaye Hill, told the Washington Post the college wanted to get out ahead of things before they reach a crisis stage. “We’re in a position of strength,” she said. “We can see our way forward for a couple years, but we can’t see our way forward much further than that.”
The state’s higher ed landscape has been rocked in recent years by closures and mergers involving smaller schools. Hampshire president Miriam Nelson said the Wheelock College merger with Boston University is a “good example” of how a partnership could work.
Whether Hampshire could retain its distinct approach if it joined with a more financially stable institution would loom as a big question.
Hampshire boasts a set of notable alums, including filmmaker Ken Burns, actors Lupita Nyong’o and Liev Schreiber, and Stonyfield Farm yogurt founder Gary Hirschberg. (Filling out the roster of graduates are, of course, thousands of everyday plebes, such as Amherst town manager Paul Bockelman, who offered hope that the college would see its way through and survive, as well as today’s somewhat misty-eyed Download correspondent.)
School officials insist Hampshire is not closing, as they look ahead to its 50th anniversary next year. Maybe the decision to get out ahead of problems will pay off with a plan that sees the college survive, adapting creatively to new realities in a way that would make its pedagogical pioneers proud.
Or maybe things don’t work out, a possibility one graduate pondered with a degree of philosophical equanimity. “Maybe it was just supposed to ride the arc of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and go away,” Jessamyn West, a 1990 Hampshire grad, told Inside Higher Ed. “Maybe higher education is different now — maybe everybody should just learn to code, which I don’t personally believe. But I know that’s the feeling in the air.”