AMHERST — Despite sharp criticism from students, professors and alumni, the trustees of Hampshire College on Friday evening announced the school will not admit a full freshman class this fall, plunging its future into further uncertainty.
The school will accept only those students who had already been granted a spot at Hampshire through deferred admissions or the early-decision process — about 60 in all. College officials have pledged to keep the school open and are looking for a partner to merge with.
“This is a time of extreme anxiety,” board chair Gaye Hill told a crowd gathered at the campus athletic center. Her speech was cut short by the chants of students angered by the decision.
Gaye spoke at a 7:30 p.m. meeting that capped a tense 24 hours on campus. Students held demonstrations and sit-ins, urging trustees to take more time before they made a decision. When students and alumni finally gathered to hear the news, they formed a ring around the gymnasium, joining hands. When the news came, some, including several trustees, shed tears.
Hampshire, known for its alternative education model with no grades or majors, is the lastest liberal arts college to cast itself as a victim of the nationwide decline in high schoolers and the increasing inability of families to afford expensive tuition.
Miriam Nelson, who took over as Hampshire president last summer, announced two weeks ago that the school, while solvent, would like to merge with another educational institution. She also said then the college might not admit a new class this fall.
But ever since Nelson’s announcement, administrators have faced outrage from students, professors, staff and alumni, who all say they were blindsided by the decision.
Prominent author and alumnus Jon Krakauer published a column in the New York Times this week worrying about the college’s future.
“The transparency situation has been so horrifying for so many students,” said Alison Smith, a first-year student from outside Baltimore.
On Thursday, several hundred students made signs and marched across campus and swarmed a lecture hall where trustees were deliberating.
“Students are scared,” said Emery Powell, a third-year student from Brooklyn, at a protest on Thursday ahead of the board’s vote. “This community needs time to hear more.”
Hampshire College enrolled its first class of students in 1970. It was created by the presidents of the other four colleges in the Pioneer Valley —
Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst — and was conceptualized as an experiment in a new type of educational model.
So far none of the four four founding schools has said it would like to merge with Hampshire.
Alumni, meanwhile, had begun a fundraising campaign to help make possible a full freshman class this fall. A crowdfunding site raised $219,000 in 48 hours toward the cause, including a $100,000 pledge from Adele Simmons, the third president of Hampshire.
Several Hampshire graduates said they do not believe the school made a good-faith fundraising effort in the years leading up to this announcement. They said they approached many wealthy graduates themselves who told them they were never contacted by the college.
Joan Wattman, who enrolled in Hampshire’s fourth class of students in 1974, said she contacted Hampshire voluntarily last fall and pledged $25,000 for a scholarship. The school accepted her offer but never mentioned any hint of financial stress, she said.
“I don’t feel like there has been a concerted effort to try to fundraise,” she said.
Steve Aronstein, who helped set up the crowdsourcing effort and started at Hampshire in 1989, said the school has always survived on a shoestring budget and idealism.
“We’ve always been in trouble; that’s how Hampshire operates, hand to mouth, for 50 years,” he said.
A group of faculty, staff, and alumni also recently penned a letter in response to the announcement urging the president to accept a new class. It expressed worry about layoffs that could follow such a decision.
Hampshire administrators, meanwhile, say the school explored many options and chose to make itself available for a merger before it is in a true financial crisis.
Two weeks ago Nelson assured students and faculty that the college will not close, but she said it is searching for other educational institutions that it could merge with as soon as this summer.
“We’ve always run lean and always been underfunded. But it’s unsustainable for us to continue living the equivalent of paycheck to paycheck,” the president wrote on the school’s website.
Small colleges across the country are struggling as the pool of college-going high schoolers shrinks. The schools are also in trouble because families are increasingly unable to pay the high tuition prices at these schools.
Hampshire, for example, costs $50,000 per year for tuition plus another $14,000 for room and board. Schools offer scholarships, of course, but that comes off their bottom line.
Hampshire has a modest $52 million endowment and depends heavily on student tuition to operate.
The fate of Hampshire is being closely watched by other colleges in New England and across the country. Green Mountain College in Vermont announced its closure just last week, and several other schools are on probation with college accreditors over concerns about their finances. Newbury College in Brookline will also close this spring.
Amid the more challenging environment, several regulatory agencies including the regional accrediting agency and the state Board of Higher Education have become more strict in their oversight of schools.
As students filed out of the gymnasium on Friday and into the sub-freezing air, many struggled to process what this will mean for their future.
“It’ll continue to be a stressful and difficult time for students and faculty and staff,” said Eric Palmer, a fourth-year student from outside Philadelphia.
Another student, Daniel Schmidt, said he is not entirely pessimistic. The first-year student from St. Louis said he will wait to see whom the college might merge with. He doesn't want to transfer if he doesn’t have to.
“Hampshire is a really special place,” he said.