Are liberal arts colleges doomed?

The cautionary tale of Hampshire College and the broken business model of American higher education.

Hampshire College's Division Free Bell hangs in the library portico. Hampshire students often ring the bell as a celebration after completing their graduation requirements. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Sarah Crosby
Hampshire College's Division Free Bell. –Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

Two days before classes started at Hampshire College in September, the school’s incoming first-year students – all 13 of them – attended a welcome reception in the campus’ new R.W. Kern Center. A motley mix of plaids, khakis and combat boots, the group lined up to shake hands with the college president and receive small bells – symbols of the large brass bell they’ll ring upon completing their “Division III,” the epic independent project required to graduate. If, that is, Hampshire survives long enough for them to graduate.

Nine months earlier, the Massachusetts college – mired in financial trouble – had launched a search for a partner to merge with and announced that it might not admit a new freshman class in the fall. Coming after a series of mergers and closures of New England schools, the announcement provoked alarm in the world of higher ed. Eventually, Hampshire offered a place to 70-odd students it had accepted early or who had taken a gap year before enrolling – but warned that there was no guarantee it would stay open.

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Among the baker’s dozen who decided to take the risk was Devin Forgue. Despite its strapped budget, Hampshire offered him better financial aid than the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He considered the less expensive Holyoke Community College, but he didn’t want to give up on his dream. Forgue has an unusually specific life ambition: to broker a global compromise to increase funding for space research. He plans to study a combination of political science, anthropology, international relations and astrophysics. And he thought that Hampshire, an experimental college that asks students to design their own course of study, was the best place to do that.

After four days of orientation with “the 13,” as his class was known (one student has since dropped out), Forgue felt he’d made the right decision. A slight 19-year-old with longish brown hair, he’d already experienced the kind of bull sessions about politics and philosophy that make college so special. “Every single one of the 13 is the type of person … I was hoping to meet,” he told me.

First-year student Devin Forgue, 19, on campus in Amherst, Massachusetts. His freshman class started with 13 students (one has since dropped out). —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

Forgue’s classmates sounded equally satisfied. “Hampshire shows people that it’s OK not to learn in this very structured way that everyone has been taught ever since preschool,” said 18-year-old Flynn Caswell. “When I came here for the first time, it was really cool for me to see that learning can be engaging, instead of sitting in class thinking I’d rather be doing something else.” At the reception, as they rang their bells and posed for a picture, the freshmen offered the weary Hampshire community hope that the college might, somehow, survive.

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Poll most top educators about their ideal kind of learning for the 21st century, and they’ll probably sound a lot like a Hampshire student. The virtues of open-ended thinking and project-based learning will be familiar to any parent who has toured a bougie preschool. But thanks to a slow recovery from the 2008 recession, rising student debt and class anxiety, parents and students are looking at college less as an intellectual experience and more as an insurance policy – and that calls for colleges that offer proven outcomes, measurable skills or exceptional prestige.

All this means that private colleges like Hampshire are struggling to find enough students able or willing to pay their high sticker prices, and the situation is only likely to get worse. Because of low birthrates following the Great Recession, Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe predicts that the four-year-college applicant pool is likely to shrink by almost 280,000 per class, over four years, starting in 2026, a year known in higher ed as “the Apocalypse.” As youth populations decline everywhere but the southern and western United States, colleges in New England and the Midwest will find it increasingly hard to lure students, particularly those able to pay.

The problem is the business model. Colleges have long counted on wealthy students to subsidize the cost of education for those who can’t afford it. But for many institutions, that is becoming untenable. With only a $52 million endowment, Hampshire is especially vulnerable to this reality, but enrollment experts say it will affect many schools outside the most elite. Schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT will be fine, says Jon Boeckenstedt, Oregon State University’s vice provost of enrollment management. “It’s those colleges in the middle of the curve, with good, solid, well-known reputations but not spectacular financial resources or academic reputation, that are feeling the pinch,” he explains.

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In May, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that several private colleges would just miss their enrollment targets this fall, including Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, ranked 35th among national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report. Also in the spring, the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts quietly ended its (increasingly rare) need-blind admissions policy, citing unsustainable spending on financial aid. And after a couple of years of missed enrollment targets and budget shortfalls, Ohio’s Oberlin College will add a business concentration – while trimming 100 students from its prestigious music conservatory and adding more to the college, which draws wealthier applicants. “For some families, college may be the largest investment in their lives. … What they’re expecting from it is the same type of long-term benefit that you might get from your multiyear mortgage,” explains Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar. “People are asking us to demonstrate the value of liberal arts.”

If the economic troubles of elite liberal arts institutions have you mock-playing an air violin, consider the consequences. For one, there’ll be fiercer competition for spots at the most prestigious schools – a sport already so gruesome, actress Felicity Huffman is doing jail time for gaming it. For another, there will be fewer opportunities for low-income students who rely on generous financial aid packages at small liberal arts colleges as one of the few tickets into the upper class. It may also mean the retreat of the only part of higher education that is uniquely American. Residential liberal arts colleges are rare in other parts of the world. For more than 200 years, they’ve made American higher education an exceptional laboratory for fostering empathy, creativity and innovation. We’ve gotten so used to them, we may not notice what we’ve lost until it’s gone.

Third-year student Maria Fitch, 21, relaxes on campus. —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

If Hampshire’s story were a “Mission: Impossible” movie, last winter’s decision not to take a full class was the moment that started the bomb-detonation countdown. For a school that relies on tuition and fees for 87% of its revenue, choosing to shed a fourth of its students was close to financial suicide. The gravity was not lost on the community. Throughout the spring semester, the Amherst, Massachusetts, campus was awash in theories about what the college’s board of trustees was hiding, about who knew what when, about what the school’s finances really were. Alumni took to Facebook. Students occupied the president’s office. Faculty exhausted themselves talking to media, brainstorming solutions, teaching classes, consoling students – and fretting about their jobs.

When I first visited, in early April, President Miriam Nelson’s office was still filled with the detritus of the protesting students who had been living there for more than 60 days: a half-eaten tray of baklava, unmade airbeds, empty Frappuccino bottles. On one wall hung a mural painted by students, depicting writer James Baldwin’s hand casting a blue shadow over merger-friendly trustee Kim Saal’s house in Northampton – a metaphor for the effort to save a school for differently abled, queer and first-generation students who can’t imagine going anywhere else.

At breakfast one morning, Nelson was struggling to keep it together. “Have you ever gone to the museum and tried putting your hand on that thing and all the electricity goes up to where your hand is?” she asked. “I feel like [that] no matter where I go.” Despite the vitriol she’d received from students, Nelson didn’t blame them. Hampshire had deferred maintenance for years. Faculty salaries were in the bottom 25% compared with peer institutions. First-generation students – the first in their families to attend college – and students of color needed more resources. And Hampshire wasn’t the kind of school that wanted to take only rich kids. “We are at a place where fundamentally our business model does not support our core values around equity, diversity, inclusion, around having the supports for students to realize their full potential,” she said. Two days later, she resigned.

After she left, Hampshire charted a different course. The board voted to abandon the possibility of a merger and enlisted noted filmmaker Ken Burns, an alumnus, to help raise $100 million in five years. In July, the college named Edward Wingenbach, president of Ripon College in Wisconsin, its new president. By the end of September, Hampshire had raised more than $9 million, cut the budgets of most of its divisions, and reduced the faculty from 145 to 86. It now has about 750 enrolled students, down from about 1,100 last spring, and it will take applications for new students in spring 2020.

As this story went to press, the school was finalizing plans for a new model that would organize students’ work around solving the big questions of our time, on topics such as climate change, artificial intelligence or migration. Wingenbach hopes it will allow Hampshire to market itself to new students and donors and keep a lean faculty. Yet despite these measures, Hampshire is far from safe. In November, it must submit a report on its financial sustainability to the New England Commission of Higher Education. The commission will then take a vote that, in the worst case, could result in withdrawal of accreditation and the school’s closing.

Hampshire College President Edward Wingenbach. —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

Unlike other colleges that have recently closed or merged, Hampshire has a certain cultural cachet. It’s a darling of academe: Two-thirds of its graduates have advanced degrees, and a quarter have started their own ventures. In addition to Burns, its alumni include chef Gabrielle Hamilton, writer Jon Krakauer, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, actor Lupita Nyong’o, and the entrepreneurs behind yogurt maker Stoneyfield Farm and organic cleaning product company Seventh Generation. With narrative evaluations instead of grades, no defined departments, no faculty tenure and a flexible curriculum, Hampshire offers its students unusual control over their education.

The campus is a Polaroid image of college before gleaming hotel-like dorms and wellness centers. The buildings are severe 1970s concrete. The radio station is in a yurt. And the students’ fashions – Goths in combat boots, nerds in khakis and short-sleeve oxford-cloth shirts – recall a world somewhere between “Animal House” and Kurt Cobain. There’s an occasional 2019 tell: the naming of preferred pronouns, the service dogs trailing students. But if you’re used to the grassy quads of state flagships or the rich Gothic and brick of the Ivy League, Hampshire’s austerity is striking. On my visit in the spring, tarps covered study carrels in the library to protect them from a leaky roof. (A Hampshire spokesman says the leak has been fixed.)

An Amherst alumnus’ gift of $6 million provided the money to purchase the land and set up Hampshire, which admitted its first students in 1970. The school intended to rely primarily on income from tuition and student fees to finance operations. That was doable at the time, when the seemingly infinite baby boomers were entering college. Hampshire had so many applicants that first year, the New York Times Magazine reported that it “was one of the hardest schools in the country to get into.” But Hampshire was on shaky financial ground. Starting in the late 1970s and the 1980s, it survived by cutting faculty and staff salaries and using its endowment to plug budget holes, according to a PowerPoint presentation about its fiscal situation that Hampshire made public in January.

By the mid-2010s, Hampshire was grappling with the demographic shifts and market pressures bearing down on higher ed. From 2005 to 2010, according to that same PowerPoint, Hampshire accepted a larger percentage of applicants to increase the class size. And those allowances seemed to affect the graduation rate. For freshmen who entered in 2010, just 65% managed to graduate in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. For an intimate liberal arts college, that was low. “Attrition was too high. … We were bringing in too many students for whom Hampshire was too hard a school,” says David Matheson, who leads the board’s finance committee. Because Hampshire is a no-grade school, “a good number of folks came in thinking it would be easy and did not end up graduating.”

To boost retention, the admissions office designed a study to determine what predicted success at Hampshire. It found that the most successful students were highly organized and willing to stretch outside their academic comfort zones, qualities reflected in application essays, insight from high school guidance counselors and admissions interviews. A key marker that had nothing to do with success? Standardized test scores.

So in 2014, Hampshire stopped accepting test scores. That meant losing its place, then 110th, in the U.S. News college rankings, an essential marketing tool. At first, the gamble paid off. From 2014 to 2015, Hampshire’s yield – the number of accepted students who chose to come – jumped from 18 to 26%. And, since standardized tests benefit affluent (and often white) applicants, in 2015 Hampshire admitted its most diverse class ever, with 31% domestic students of color and 18% first-generation students.

Hampshire College third-year student Elías Alejo, 20, left, talks with fourth-year student Emery Powell during a student government meeting. —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post
Hampshire College fourth-year student Micael Sobel, 22, walks past a mural on campus. —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

The diverse students thrived at Hampshire, but the new admissions criteria came at a financial cost. “We knew when we adopted that strategy that we would be pruning the applicant pool to some degree,” says Matheson. “What we may not have realized is that more of those pruned people may have been higher-income than we anticipated.”

While taking more low-income students, Hampshire was also offering more “merit” aid to academically strong upper-income students to lure them from competitors. “Parents would say, ‘I’ve got an awfully nice offer from Bard. Is there anything you can do?’ ” says Matheson. “If you are potentially going to get a student who might be able to contribute $50,000 a year in tuition, that student is worth a lot. If you can get that student for $35,000, that’s still a very good deal for the college.”

The combination of merit and financial aid cost Hampshire. In 2013, the college’s average first-year student was paying 56% of the listed tuition price. By 2018, that was down to 40%. That contributed to a real drop in net revenue. In 2013, Hampshire’s net revenue from tuition, room, board and fees was 3.3% higher than in the previous year. Revenue declined every year after that. By 2018, it was 6.8% less than in the previous year, according to the financial PowerPoint presentation.

It’s worth a pause here to explain how college pricing works. Like airline passengers, every student at a given college pays a different price. Colleges list high tuition prices hoping that enough students pay the top price to compensate for those who can pay little or nothing. Depending on the state, needier students will usually pay less at a liberal arts college than they would at a state flagship. It sounds counterintuitive, but choosing a public school to save money is actually a privilege for the affluent. And since the 2008 recession, more well-to-do parents are choosing those schools. To compete, private colleges are then forced to offer merit aid to top students who don’t need the money. Admissions professionals call the tension between giving grants to entice affluent students and using the money to increase diversity with need-based aid the “iron triangle.” And the pressure is a factor for the whole sector: A survey of 405 private nonprofit four-year colleges by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found that though the average tuition rate was $38,301, the average amount that first-time freshmen paid was just $18,424.

Ironically, wealthier, more prestigious schools don’t have to give out as much merit aid because they’re more likely to get qualified affluent students willing to pay a premium: Four percent of Hampshire’s new students paid full price in 2017-2018, but at nearby Amherst College, U.S. News’ No. 2-ranked liberal arts college, 34% of new students paid the list price of $71,300, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment experts say that difference has a lot to do with high rank.

“As college prices exceed now easily $70,000 a year, parents are scratching their heads going, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be worth it unless my kid is going to go to a school that everyone is bragging about,’ ” says Bob Massa, a former enrollment manager at Johns Hopkins University and Dickinson College who teaches at the University of Southern California’s graduate school of education.

This puts even more pressure on schools just below the top. “In the U.S., income disparity is growing, and we have fewer and fewer Americans in the middle,” explains former Hampshire president Nelson. “What we have in higher education is exactly the same thing. Institutions with over a billion in endowment are getting stronger and stronger as they can attract the best students. … And financially under-resourced institutions are going to get weaker and weaker.”

At the same time, elite colleges aren’t accepting more lower-income students. The share of low-income students receiving federal grants at the most competitive colleges stayed essentially flat between 2000 and 2014, going from 15 to 16%, while it grew from 46 to 59% at noncompetitive institutions, according to the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm EAB. That’s surprising, given the explosion in the number of organizations that help these students access selective colleges.

Also surprising is how hard it can be for these students to get into elite colleges: Tatiana Poladko – co-founder of TeenSHARP, a Delaware- and New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that helps 100 underrepresented high-achieving students get into selective colleges every year – says that her students typically apply to 15 to 20 of these colleges, and are happy to get accepted to one. “The bar has just gotten so much higher,” Poladko says. “The line I get all the time [from admissions] is, ‘Our pool of African American low-income first-generation students is deep.’ ”

Hampshire’s Harold F. Johnson Library, left, and the neighboring Robert Crown Center. —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

In 2016, as tuition market dynamics were slashing Hampshire’s budget, the culture on campus was approaching a crisis that made things even worse. That spring, as tensions over racial justice and sexual assault were rising on campuses nationwide, Hampshire students say there was a perceived lack of institutional support for students of color. Anger over the college’s handling of sexual assault sent students marching across campus holding mattresses over their heads. Frustration bubbled over when the administration failed to replace the director of Hampshire’s cultural center, a resource for international students and students of color.

Amid the turmoil, Hampshire opened the Kern Center, a sustainable wood-and-glass building that runs on solar energy. It was the first new building in years on a campus sorely in need of something beautiful. Most of the money for the center came from donors who wanted to support that project specifically, so it couldn’t have been used to refurbish dorms, increase cultural center support staff or improve counseling services. But students say the administration did a poor job of communicating that. “People were feeling a financial crisis on campus and being told that important things couldn’t happen, and then there was the Kern Center,” says Emmett DuPont, a former member of Hampshire’s student government, who graduated last year. Meanwhile, then-Hampshire President Jonathan Lash became seriously ill, requiring a leave of absence.

Responding to the leadership void, student groups called a community meeting. On April 19, 2016, Hampshire canceled classes and the entire student body packed into the gym. One by one, students took the microphone to share personal and graphic stories of racism and sexual assault they’d experienced on campus; anger erupted between students who felt unheard. “People were laying on the floor, sobbing,” recalls DuPont. “It devastated the community.”

Donald Trump’s election that fall was another blow to campus morale. A civil discussion about whether Hampshire should consider removing an American flag from campus became a national scandal when an unidentified person took it down and burned it overnight. Local veterans protested. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson covered the story, provoking such intense anger from outside campus, DuPont recalls, the admissions office had to remove interns from the phones.

Meanwhile, when DuPont gave admissions tours, students would come over to tell prospective students terrible things about the school. “They would say, ‘Don’t come to Hampshire. The administration is racist. They don’t deal with sexual assault,’ ” DuPont says.

The combination of bad publicity and sour mood didn’t help enrollment. In 2016, Hampshire enrolled 1,333 students. By the spring semester of 2019, the student body was down to 1,120, and net revenue from tuition and student fees was down 11% from 2018, according to the financial analysis Hampshire released.

The sad paradox is that, despite the scandal, many first-generation students of color thrived at Hampshire in ways they might not have at bigger, less personal institutions. Elías Alejo, 20, a first-generation third-year student from Los Angeles, told me they didn’t think a state school would have offered the same support or made it possible to secure and thrive at the internship they had last summer with U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan.

Moreover, first-generation students may be more willing than their wealthier peers to take a flier on a school like Hampshire. Marlon Becerra, a 2019 graduate now at Harvard Law School, could have gone to a more highly ranked school, but Hampshire’s collaborative spirit and lack of requirements fit his ideal college vision. Becerra says he followed the advice of his college counselor at Legal Outreach, an organization that prepares underserved New York City students for college and law school: “You need not to find the best college but the best college for you.”

That kind of decision-making is becoming less common. “The market punishes distinction,” says Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University. “If we’re going to have this rush to vanilla, that would be terrible. And I do think you see some of that now when high school seniors talk about getting into a very selective school: ‘I got into fill-in-the-blank and now my work is done.’ Because when you go to any of these schools, they’re kind of the same. … It’s as if you had won a race, instead of going to a school that has opportunities you never knew existed.”

Second-year student Rhiannon Larsen, 18, hammers sheet metal while creating a sculpture in the Center for Design. —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

On the day before classes started in September, hundreds of faculty, staff, students, alumni and parents gathered in the gym to discuss how to save the school. President Wingenbach rose to speak. “That decision not to take a full class has taken that slow-moving challenge … and turned [it] into a genuine crisis,” he told the crowd. “And it’s one that we’re going to address and we’re going to solve.”

In seven weeks, Wingenbach told the assembly, Hampshire would have to present its accreditors with a plan to prove its sustainability, cover a budget shortfall, and recruit a freshman class for fall 2020. To do that, he explained, Hampshire would have to “show the world” that it is possible to provide a liberal arts education with faculty mentorship, accessible to anyone who wants it regardless of income – without a massive endowment. Put another way, Hampshire had seven weeks to solve the central challenge to undergraduate liberal arts education.

After Wingenbach’s speech, each table in the room took an hour to brainstorm. At one table, facilitator Naia Tenerowicz, 22, a third-year student with teal hair who uses a wheelchair, laid out the goal. The group would go through a set of questions to tease out Hampshire’s best and worst qualities and then produce a poster board of what a new Hampshire could look like. A discussion formed around the question of how much structure Hampshire needs. The course requirements the college has aded over the years for first-year students are inherently un-Hampshire and can be taxing for faculty, but the students admitted they’re necessary. Lack of structure is part of what has made the college less expensive, but it’s also become less palatable to today’s students.

Third-year student Naia Tenerowicz, 22, in front of graphite and ink drawings she created as a “representation of the resolve needed to move forward as an empowered, disabled activist.” —Sarah Crosby for The Washington Post

The next morning, in his office, Wingenbach explained what he thinks Hampshire must do to stay open. His focus was on fundraising and keeping costs down by relying on a tiny faculty – a prospect made easier by Hampshire’s inclusion in a consortium with Smith, UMass Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Amherst.

I asked him why he had left a stable job and uprooted his family to take a less certain job across the country. “If Hampshire can’t make it work, then what hope do we have for a student-centered progressive pedagogy? … What hope is there for higher ed aside from those really well-off students who are going to get this no matter where they go?” he replied. “If we can’t find a model that allows residential liberal arts colleges to survive within the constraints of what students and families can afford to pay … then [a] reckoning is really going to happen.”

Hampshire isn’t the only college trying to solve this problem. The easiest first step is to aim to be more competitive in a constricting market, adding things like business majors, new gyms and guaranteed paid internships. Critics of higher ed like to point to its obsession with facilities and fancier buildings – money they say inflates the cost of college at the expense of what’s important. But asking parents to spend a lot of money on an education is easier when you have the facilities those parents expect.

“I’ve certainly heard that critique, which comes, among other sources, from parents who think our counseling office is inadequately staffed or the range of foods offered in our dining halls don’t speak to special dietary concerns or think our dormitories ought to resemble at least Hampton Inns if not Ritz-Carltons. I’m not whining about that … but it does strike me as curious that the demand for greater services and the complaints about rising costs tend to come from the same quarter,” says Sewanee Vice Chancellor John McCardell Jr., who has recently moved to increase his school’s financial aid to meet the full financial need of less-affluent families.

To survive for another hundred years, experts agree, colleges will have to embrace more transformational change. “This is an inflection point in higher ed,” says Twillie Ambar of Oberlin. “We have to stop asking, ‘Does this feel like us?’ … and ask, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ” She’s talking about exploring things like partnerships with community colleges, one-year certificate programs for nontraditional or returning students, or integrating departments to reduce administrative costs.

She was recently on the phone with some of the Five Colleges of Ohio, a consortium of selective private schools, discussing a possible joint program in Cleveland. “Those conversations would not have gone very far 10 years ago, but to a person, everyone on that call said we need to get together and talk about that,” she says.

In my last hour at Hampshire, I sat with Devin Forgue in the student center above the gym as he drank a protein shake for lunch that he’d brought from home, where he’s living to save money. We talked about his desire to study in Japan and his crazy goal to broker a global deal on space research. He knew there was a chance that Hampshire might not make it. But he really felt the school offered his only path to realizing that dream. “If you have a vision that could be world-changing or even just transformational for your personal journey,” he said, “Hampshire will back you up.” To do that for Forgue, Hampshire may have to help transform higher education first.