Amid turmoil at Hampshire College, just 15 take the leap to join freshman class
Devin Forgue was all too familiar with the problems plaguing Hampshire College, the financial strains that threatened to undermine the very survival of the unorthodox liberal arts school.
In April, during an Accepted Students Day program, the Belchertown resident witnessed a protest at the Amherst campus in which students demanded more transparency from administrators.
But hours after that rally, Forgue, 18, put down his deposit to join Hampshire’s Class of 2023.
It will be an intimate group of freshmen. Only 14 other new students decided to take a leap of faith and enroll at the school, which famously eschews majors and letter grades.
Some first-year students, like Forgue, were undeterred by the school’s plight, in which its accreditation and a possible merger with another institution hung in the balance. They followed their hearts, sticking with their dream school.
“Hampshire was one of the top choices I had, and it stayed that way through everything that happened,” Forgue said. “I believe in the school.”
Others enrolled there as a matter of practicality: Hampshire was their sole option for earning a college degree.
Typically, there are 300 freshmen. Yet Hampshire, uncertain what its short-term future held, only admitted individuals who had applied early decision or taken a gap year.
Overall enrollment, usually hovering around 1,400, has plummeted to about 600.
The school must overhaul its governance and financial resources by Nov. 1, the deadline for accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education. Legendary filmmaker and Hampshire alumnus Ken Burns is helping to spearhead a frenzied multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign to keep the school afloat.
But recently, Hampshire’s board of trustees has appeared more confident in the college’s longevity. In June, interim president Ken Rosenthal announced that a full class would be admitted for fall 2020. (Former president Miriam Nelson resigned in April amid rising discontent in the Hampshire community, and a search is ongoing for her successor.)
Sean Song, who will start classes at Hampshire this September following a gap year, said he remains “very hopeful.” An aspiring game designer, Song believes the unique experience of helping to rebuild a college will make him a competitive job candidate.
Song was accepted to five schools. Hampshire College, he said, represents the best option at the moment.
“If circumstances change, where accreditation is lost, I might have to change that,” said Song, 19, sighing deeply. “It’s quite hard. Although I respect Hampshire as a school with many good assets, that major flaw could out-scale all those facilities.”
Song’s father is cautious about his son’s path, fraught with hurdles. Nevertheless, he trusts this is the correct decision — for now.
Devin Forgue’s mother, Terri, also supports her son’s decision. She acknowledged that family finances are tight. Tuition at the private college, before scholarships are factored in, is $50,000, according to Hampshire’s website.
However, she said she’d be even more heartbroken for her son if Hampshire were shuttered. Then he’d never have the chance to study international relations and anthropology there, a long-harbored ambition.
“I’ve raised him his whole life dealing with the consequences [of his decisions] — good, bad, or indifferent,” said Terri Forgue, 53 . “So of course, I’m always nervous, but I fully support him. I still think if everything manages to stay the same, it will help to where he’s looking for his future.”
Devin, who is working at a New Hampshire campground this summer, played down the social challenges that might arise with only 14 peers in his class.
“I kind of look forward to it,” Forgue said. “I think everybody is going to bond because we’ve all gone through this experience. We will have more of a say on how we want it to be developed, because Hampshire does listen to the students.”
To fill in academic gaps, Hampshire students can still rely on the school’s affiliation with the Five College Consortium, which includes Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The network allows students to take classes, join clubs, and use resources at any of the campuses.
But for many students admitted to Hampshire, the inherent risks became overwhelming — and ultimately not worthwhile.
To Natalie Barry, Hampshire College — once the school of her dreams — has already changed too much since she applied on the early-decision track last fall. In February, she received a letter detailing what to expect her first semester: limited extracurricular activities and reduced housing, dining hall, and work-study options.
Barry, 18, instantly recognized it was time to move on. Now she’s bound for Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., to pursue a double major in psychology and political science.
“That was that,” Barry said. “It wasn’t going to be a major loss if I didn’t go to Hampshire. I just don’t think it’s right for me.”
Jessica Roy, a returning third-year student, said she is confident that Hampshire will address its lengthy list of woes before November’s accreditation deadline. Roy, 21, knows that her lectures will be smaller and that the campus will be strangely vacant with more than half of its population gone.
The former orientation leader is more worried about the tiny freshman class, caught in the middle of this sizable transition.
“It’s going to be a lot for those kids,” Roy said, pausing to reflect on Hampshire’s supportive culture. “What they’re doing is almost completely unheard of.”