Filmmaker Ken Burns Tries to Rally Hampshire Alumni to Keep College Afloat

By Jon Kamp (WSJ)

July 2, 2019 5:30 am ET

Liberal-arts school in Massachusetts is one of many small private colleges under financial strain

Hampshire College has slashed its staff and admitted just 15 new students for this fall.

The small liberal-arts college in Amherst, Mass., known for eschewing majors and formal grades, is one of the country’s many small private colleges under financial strain. Nonelite liberal-arts schools are under particular pressure as students question the value of racking up debt for degrees in a strong job market.

These schools are competing for a dwindling supply of high-school graduates, and some have been forced to close or merge with other institutions. The closure rate for nonprofit, private colleges is projected to triple in the next few years, from the average of five a year between 2004 and 2014, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Hampshire sought a strategic partner earlier this year while predicting steep deficits, but it was a controversial move among people who wanted Hampshire to remain independent and led to a leadership shake-up. Hampshire will now go it alone while leaning on alumni to help stabilize the school.

The school aims to raise $103 million over the next five years from alumni, philanthropic sources and other outlets. About half is needed to fund operations and balance the budget, while the rest is aimed at campus upgrades and improving school programs.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, a 1975 graduate who says the school changed his life, chairs the fundraising effort and is determined to preserve his alma mater. He has kicked in an undisclosed amount.

He views Hampshire and its academic model as a counterweight to the competitive, status-seeking college search. “The admissions scandal reminds us that for the last generation or so, this system has been corrupted by a purely transactional sort of relationship to higher education,” Mr. Burns said, adding that Hampshire was “exactly what I needed, and [it is] hugely important that we keep it alive.”

The school, nearing its 50th anniversary, launched as an experiment in higher education. Hampshire students design their own program of study, culminating in a thesis-like project their final year, with professors offering detailed evaluations rather than letter grades.

Tuition at the school typically accounts for 90% of revenue, and enrollment will drop to just 600 this coming year, down from nearly 1,400 during the 2013-14 school year. Some alumni said the most recent reason for shrunken enrollment was a self-inflicted wound: Hampshire decided in January not to take a fall 2019 class, except for early decision and gap-year students, due to fears about the school’s future.

Like many schools, Hampshire has also been offering discounts to attract students. In the coming year, the school projects a 55% discount rate off about $50,800 in tuition and mandatory fees.

Financial strain can put colleges’ accreditation in peril, cutting off access to federal student loans or grants. Hampshire faces this risk if current conditions continue or worsen, the New England Commission of Higher Education said in June. The regional accreditor gave Hampshire until November to show progress. It said it should have realistic plans for fundraising, enrollment and discount rates, as well as enhancing its long-term sustainability.

Hampshire officials viewed the reprieve as good news and said they know the school needs fundamental changes. Plans include raising the number of students per faculty member, improving marketing and recruitment to draw more students beyond the Northeast, and upgrading the campus.

“Two things we need to do, obviously, are raise money and raise students,” interim President Ken Rosenthal said.

The school recently said it has raised $9 million cash and pledges toward its multiyear fundraising goal, including $4.5 million in cash toward a near-term goal of raising $20 million by mid-2020. Encouraged by this progress, the school—where incoming classes are usually around 300—plans to admit a new class again in fall 2020.

Fundraising can buy time, but it isn’t a long-term strategic solution, said Haven Ladd, a managing director with consulting firm EY-Parthenon, which works with colleges. Hampshire isn’t a client.

Gary Hirshberg, a Hampshire alum and co-founder of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, believes Hampshire needed a partner. He said he gave $1 million to the school about five years ago and can’t be a major donor now because he has other commitments, not because he disagrees with the school’s path.

“I’m certainly fine with the school trying to go it on its own, but I’m skeptical about whether we have the means to really get to the numbers that are probably needed,” he said.

Sweet Briar College, a small women’s liberal-arts school in Virginia, staved off a planned closure in 2015 when an alumnae group sued the school and raised money. The school continues to rely on unrestricted donations to help cover its operating budget, but that has steadily shrunken for several years to 41% in the current fiscal year, the school said.

Sweet Briar’s regional accreditor removed its warning on June 13 and the school expects about 18% to 20% growth in enrollment this fall, a spokeswoman said.

Mr. Rosenthal replaced former Hampshire President Miriam Nelson in April, when she stepped down amid opposition to decisions to seek a strategic partner and forgo a fall class.

Several alumni said the January announcement laying out Hampshire’s struggles came as a shock. The concept of partnering with another college was a particularly bitter pill for the unique school.

“I think we made the right decision not to take a class back in January, but I think what we had failed to understand was how deep and how committed the community associated with Hampshire was about being independent,” board member Dave Matheson said.


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Appeared in the July 3, 2019, print edition as 'Tiny Liberal-Arts College Fights to Survive.'