Saving Hampshire College

Can Hampshire College rise, if not from the dead, from the higher ed death watch list? 

Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen has predicted that as many as half of all US colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt over the next decade, and a year ago it looked like Hampshire would be one of them. 

The Amherst college, founded in 1970 with a commitment to rethinking traditional liberal arts education, said it was in dire financial straits and would be seeking a “strategic partner” to merge with. The college, which depends almost entirely on tuition revenue to operate, seemed to push itself closer to the fiscal cliff by then announcing it would not accept a new entering class this fall. 

The news of Hampshire’s death, however, has been premature. 

Students, faculty, and alumni rose up in protest against the planned merger, and within months the college president who said it was the only viable path had resigned, along with the leaders of the college board of trustees who backed the plan. The remaining college leaders declared they would instead mount an aggressive fundraising drive and pursue other reforms to remain an independent college.

Now charged with leading that effort is Ed Wingenbach, who arrived in August as Hampshire’s new president. For a guy facing a very tall task, the veteran college administrator — most recently at Ripon College in Wisconsin — sounded enthusiastic and upbeat as he talked about the challenge on The Codcast.  The college has about 730 students after what Wingenbach calls the “self-induced crisis” of not enrolling a new class this fall. He says Hampshire will be back to 1,100 or 1,200 students within five years.

Dec. 13, 2019

Hampshire College president Ed Wingenbach. (Photo by Libby Gormley)

Soaring costs, a decline in their target population, and heightened interest by families and prospective students in explicitly career-focused studies have created strong headwinds for small, private liberal arts schools. No one knows if Hampshire can pull off a turnaround, but Wingenbach inspires confidence that a plan is in place and that it’s grounded in a realistic view of the challenges facing small liberal arts colleges. 

Centerpieces of the plan are efforts to wrestle down the cost structure at Hampshire, which had become unsustainable with a dip in enrollment combined with continued faculty growth, and an aggressive $60 million capital campaign, which documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a Hampshire alum, is co-chairing. 

The five-year effort is on track, says Wingenbach, with over $11 million already collected. 

The challenge of reducing the school’s cost structure, he says, will be met by doubling down on Hampshire’s non-traditional approach, which emphasizes individualized study plans, with a full-year senior project as the capstone to an education that pushes students to take the kind of rigorous approach to a question that would be expected in graduate school or a real-world job setting. 

“This idea that Hampshire is an under-resourced institution has been kind of a dominant refrain for a couple of decades,” says Wingenbach. “I think it’s a mistake, and I think it’s a mistake that a lot of small colleges might make. You have to look at the resources that you have and look relentlessly at the core of your mission and match the two. We have a very clear mission.  We know exactly what matters in what we do at Hampshire. We need to focus on only doing the things that match that mission and make that student experience the best it possibly can be as they build their course of study, and anything that isn’t directly related to that is something that we don’t necessarily need to be doing.” 

That means not trying to compete in the “amenities race” that has some campuses scrambling to build ever-fancier dorms or bring sushi to the dining hall. Wingenbach says it also means not being fixated on having a faculty member in each narrow traditional academic discipline, but instead reemphasizing that professors’ “primary expertise in relation to students is as a mentor, as a co-learner, as a resource.” 

Last month, the New England Commission of Higher Education reaccredited Hampshire, a key short-term vote of confidence in the turnaround plan. 

Lots of eyes will be watching the school’s efforts. With good reason, says Wingenbach, who argues that the small college has played an outsized role in American higher education.

“Hampshire College is, from my point of view, and I think from many people in higher education’s point of view, the essential college in American higher ed. Hampshire College was founded 50 yrs ago this fall specifically to be a source of innovation and experimentation in higher ed.” He says many of the trends in higher ed over the last 50 years — whether it’s senior capstone projects, project-based learning, or studying across multiple disciplines — “emerged from Hampshire College in one form or another. And so to not have a place like Hampshire College in the educational ecosystem would, I think, be a disaster for all of us.”

“What drives small colleges into distress is this inability to stop trying to do everything. If you try to do that, you’re just going to a bad version of everything at a cost you can’t sustain,” he says. “I am completely confident that there are more than 5 or 600 students every year who desperately want to do the kind of education that Hampshire offers.” 



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