Hampshire Seeks Partner After Financial Distress

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted President Biddy Martin as saying that “[Hampshire] wouldn’t want any help that would sustain them over a longer term.” Martin said that Hampshire wouldn’t want any help that would not sustain them over a longer term. The Student apologizes for this error. This article was updated on February 7 at 11:29 a.m.

Hampshire College’s current operations are unsustainable, President Miriam Nelson announced on Jan. 15. The institution will seek a long-term partner to aid in its financial endeavors. Nearly three weeks following the initial announcement, Hampshire also decided that it would not be admitting new first years for the fall of 2019, only taking in students who applied through a binding early decision agreement or took a gap year.

“We’ve begun a process to seek a strategic partnership to address the challenges we’ve faced as an under-endowed institution, really from our very first days,” Nelson wrote in a statement.

The decision comes at a time when small liberal arts colleges are facing the threat of closure as a result of increasing deficits. Mount Ida College closed its doors last February before merging with University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Wheelock College began a strategic partnership with Boston University in 2017 to remedy the college’s financial pitfalls.

Initially an experiment developed by the other four colleges of the Five College Consortium in 1965, Hampshire’s short 50 years as an institution poses barriers in building a large endowment. Hampshire’s current endowment is $53 million. In contrast, Amherst’s current endowment is $2.2 billion.

“In Hampshire’s case, they’re in a particularly challenging situation because they’ve only been around for half a century,” Amherst College Chief Financial Officer Kevin Weinman said. “Not only do they not have the opportunity to invest in an endowment for over two hundred years, but their alumni are still aging to the point of their careers where they’re to give back to the college.”

In addition to endowments and donations, small private colleges are also heavily reliant on tuition, according to Weinman. The decreasing number of 17- to 22-year-old students applying to college, coupled with competition from other institutions offering more financial aid to applicants, has resulted in decreased funding through tuition.

To address the implications of Hampshire’s decision on Amherst and the Five College community at large, Amherst College President Biddy Martin hosted a public discussion with Weinman and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein on Feb. 1. The event was open to students, faculty and staff to ask questions and brainstorm ideas on how to proceed following Hampshire’s announcement.

“Since we don’t know what’s going to happen, whether [Hampshire] will close or join another institution or partner, it’s hard to come to any sound conclusion,” Martin said at the beginning of the meeting. According to Martin, Hampshire has not consulted with Amherst to address any collaborative solutions.

Martin also noted that Amherst is unable to completely pull Hampshire out of deficit. “[Hampshire] wouldn’t want any help that would not sustain them over a longer term,” she said. “The amount of money that would take would be detrimental to Amherst College. That’s the sad part. It would be great if we could just absorb an entire college, but our budget is tight just on the basis of what we all do here.”

“As their deficit gap continues to grow wider and wider, they’re no longer asking their alums and the other five colleges to step in because the financial contributions that could be made might keep the institution going for some period of time, but eventually those annual budgetary gaps grow so large,” Weinman added.

One recurring attribute raised by discussion members was the value Hampshire students bring to Amherst classes. Last year, while only 36 Amherst students took classes at Hampshire, 312 Hampshire students were enrolled in an Amherst class.

“There is a real concern about the absence of those Hampshire students in the classes in which they enroll,” Epstein said. “They make a difference in our classes, not least our humanities classes, and they bring something important to those classes.”

Others emphasized the value of programs unique to Hampshire — their architecture program, art exhibition and early learning center for children were all assets that members of the Amherst community hoped to preserve.

Discussion members also brainstormed ways to mitigate the effects of a merger to the Hampshire community. Martin noted that Amherst began to accept late applications from students who applied to Hampshire after ambiguity on whether Hampshire would admit a freshman class.

While Hampshire’s next steps are unclear, Amherst reiterated its concern for the institution and hope for the best possible outcome.

“We are saddened and worried about the fate of Hampshire,” Martin said.