As Enrollment Recovers, Hampshire Students Reflect

After sizable decreases in enrollment resulting from financial implosion in 2019, Hampshire College enrolled a class of 275 first years this fall — the largest since 2018. The Student spoke to some Hampshire students about their recent experiences, and their cautious optimism about the future.

When Raffey Shakoor arrived in Amherst for his first year at Hampshire College, in Spring 2021, he was surprised to find that he was one of only two students on his floor — it had 10 unoccupied rooms. The campus was inhabited by a meager 500-odd students.

“I would walk around and I would see absolutely no one,” Shakoor said. Today, however, “it feels very full.”

This past term, Hampshire — a liberal arts college known for its emphasis on self-directed study and qualitative evaluation rather than grading — enrolled some 275 first-year students, its largest incoming class since 2018.

Shakoor’s class, composed of students who entered the college in Fall 2020, had an enrollment less than half of a standard class size. The year before, the incoming class was only 13 students.

The severely reduced enrollment was a symptom of the financial woes that have been plaguing Hampshire since its founding in the early 1970s, but which came to a head in 2019. In addition to historically low enrollment, that year featured staff and faculty layoffs and resulting protests from students and faculty alike.

During the turmoil, 26 Hampshire professors took positions at other institutions in the area, with 13 transferring to Amherst.

The arrival of a new president, Ed Wingenbach, in August 2019 brought redoubled efforts to make the college’s operations sustainable and return enrollment to near full capacity.

The college is nearly in the fourth year of a five-year plan to bring total enrollment to around 1,200.

“I have no doubt that we will be able to continue to increase [enrollment] numbers, particularly since we are continuing to see increases in interest and inquiries and people who are looking for and looking at Hampshire,” Wingenbach said in a May interview with WAMC Northeast Public Radio. “So as those numbers go up and the excitement about Hampshire increases amongst those populations of students, we expect to see the growth continue.”

In light of the sizable first-year class, The Student spoke with several Hampshire students about how the change has affected campus life and the sense of community at the college during the fall term.

The students largely expressed appreciation for the higher enrollment numbers, which they said have contributed to a more lively social scene on campus.

“It’s way different,” Shakoor said. “Events are way more frequent. Community building is very, very high.”

An international student from Pakistan, Shakoor said he struggled to find community in his early years at Hampshire.

Due to difficulties obtaining a visa during the pandemic, Shakoor wasn’t able to enter the college with the other members of his class, instead arriving in the spring. He found it difficult to break into the already established social scene.

“They have their own friend groups, they have their own circles, they hang out, so it was really hard for me to be social,” Shakoor said.

He eventually was able to find community with other international students, who could relate to his experience, and by reaching out to his Resident Advisor (RA), who invited Shakoor to hang out with his friends. His classes, even though they were online, also helped him make friends, both at Hampshire and the other Five Colleges.

According to Yahui Liu, who transferred from a Chinese university to Hampshire in Fall 2020, the increased number of students has produced a definite shift in the energy on campus. Student organizations are more properly funded, campus cafés are more crowded, and there is a higher population of workers on campus. Last year, Liu said, an instructor at the Forum for International Students at Hampshire (FISH) was working two other jobs simultaneously.

“[Now,] we have two more instructors helping him, doing the same amount of work he was doing last year,” she said. “Now, everyone can be more professional. Everyone can have more time to handle everything.”

Bridget Ronning, a dancer and a member of the Fall 2022 first-year class, said that she was “a little bit daunted” to attend a school with Hampshire’s enrollment problems.

“In practice, the concerns that I had didn’t really form in the way that I thought they would,” she said.

Hampshire has become a social “home base,” she said, from which she can branch out to meet students from other schools — through the Five College dance community or in her classes.

But Hampshire remains the backbone of her social experience, even though she says it can be “fluid” at times. “But that’s kind of the beauty of it. It’s as concrete as you need it to be,” she said.

Regarding the prospect of future enrollment growth, the students interviewed maintained cautious optimism, emphasizing that it would have to be accompanied by corresponding growth in other aspects of the college’s operations — particularly its academic offerings.

Although he thought more students would bring “a positive impact,” Shakoor noted that it’s already difficult to secure a spot in many classes. “I believe they should think more on expanding their academics to make sure that plan stays on track,” he said.

Liu was similarly concerned about the academic offerings at the college.

“I talked with our president because I was wondering if we will have more professors and if we have more classes,” she said. “Although taking classes at other colleges is good, it’s better to have more options on your campus.”

Both noted that some professors have been hired recently, particularly in the computer science and economics departments, but that more ground should be made up as enrollment grows.  

But, overall, the students looked forward to a more crowded campus.

“I definitely appreciate it when there’s more perspectives being offered,” Ronning said. “I think you’re going to find more people who are willing to share perspectives the larger a group you have.”