How two (very different) Massachusetts colleges are taking on the same fast-approaching threat

"The challenges are going to get tougher before they get easier."

A swing hangs from a tree branch in September on the bucolic campus of Hampshire College. —Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

Hampshire College may sit just five miles away from the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts in the town of Amherst. But the two institutions are facing the next decade — and a looming college enrollment crisis — from vastly different positions.

After a brush with mortality last year, Hampshire enrolled barely a dozen incoming freshmen as the school works to find a path back to sustainability after years of multi-million-dollar budget deficits. Meanwhile, the UMass system now counts five nationally ranked campuses and has recently made moves to expand its physical footprint.

But they’re both moving to get ahead of a so-called “demographic cliff” coming this decade that threatens the business model of higher education.

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“The challenges are going to get tougher before they get easier,” UMass President Marty Meehan told Boston.com in a recent interview. “Everyone has to be thinking that way.”

In short, New England colleges are at the heart of a declining enrollment crisis, which is being exacerbated by larger demographic trends (tuition costs that have outpaced increases in family income also haven’t helped). The United States population is shifting both south and west — and declining in New England. Furthermore, the already slowing national birth rate experienced a precipitous drop-off around 2008, when the Great Recession hit, and has generally continued to decline since. In other words, the pressures on colleges ramp up even further come 2026, when all the children who were never born beginning in 2008 would turn 18.

“The number of college-aged students will drop almost 15 percent in five years,” Meehan said. “It’s significant.”

The former Massachusetts congressman-turned-higher education administrator has been raising alarms that New England is “ground zero” of this “existential threat.” And he thinks most colleges and universities were not adequately preparing, as evidenced early on by the recent spate of closures and mergers in the region.

Hampshire College recently nearly became one of those schools.

Almost exactly a year ago, the 50-year-old school — known for its unconventional student-led curriculum with no grades or majors — revealed it was exploring a merger amid enrollment declines, which hit the institution particularly hard. The school ultimately laid off 24 staffers last spring — and 58 faculty members either took voluntary leaves of absence, agreed to reduced roles, or retired. After just 77 students were admitted for the current academic year, 13 ultimately decided to enroll.

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Ed Wingenbach, who took over as Hampshire president in August, says the school is still trying to get on a sustainable track — but is no longer considering a merger.

“We will now do the hard work to have an independent Hampshire — or we will close,” he said in September. “We’re going to make it or we’re not — and we are going to make it.”

Hampshire President Ed Wingenbach listens during a brainstorming session last September. —Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

In a recent interview with Boston.com, Wingenbach said the key is for Hampshire to double down on its avant-garde identity. In December, he announced that Hampshire would make its curriculum “even more distinct.” For at least the next two years, the school will offer a “transdisciplinary” program offering full-year seminars and organized around four overarching themes: “Environments and Change, In/Justice, Media and Technology, Time and Narrative.”

Wingenbach says the approach is intended to prepare students for a changing economy in which they may have multiple careers — a rebuke of the trend toward more vocational learning.

“Any job that can be trained for specifically is a job that can eventually be reduced to an algorithm,” he said, referring to research showing that liberal arts graduates earn more money in the long term. “And so the most interesting and exciting and rewarding jobs of the future are going to be the ones that you cannot train for specifically.”

Hampshire officials point to other liberal arts schools across the country — from Sterling College in Vermont to Wingenbach’s previous employer, Ripon College, in Wisconsin — that have narrowed their focus to be more sustainable as proof of the model.

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“A lot of the things that schools have been rolling out as innovative approaches are things that Hampshire invented and perfected, and we didn’t quite move on to the next thing as quickly as we should have,” Wingenbach said.

As The Washington Post reported last fall, Hampshire has been on shaky financial ground before the more recent demographic shifts hit. So in addition to focusing its academic program, Wingenbach is taking a hard look at the school’s expenses. This year’s operating budget is 20 percent lower than the previous year, and they plan to maintain that level as a baseline. Hampshire also launched a fundraising campaign — led by several successful alumni, including documentarian Ken Burns — to raise $60 million by June 2024.

Getting Hampshire’s enrollment and student-to-faculty ratios back up to previous levels is the biggest part of that effort. Ten years from now, Wingenbach says the school will “look a lot more like it looked 10 years ago than it looked two years ago.”

Additionally, as the relatively young institution itself ages, he expects more regular donations from alums to help take the pressure off. Last academic year, net tuition and fees (including room and board) made up 82 percent of Hampshire’s revenue. Wingenbach notes that first wave of graduates are just now reaching their 70s.

“Over the next decade — this is kind of morbid — a lot of those planned gifts are going to mature,” he said.

UMass Amherst students head across campus in 2014. —Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe

On the other end of the spectrum, with an endowment approaching $1 billion, the UMass system doesn’t need to count on a windfall from donors dying off.

By comparison, officials project that less than 40 percent of the system’s revenue next fiscal year will come from net tuition, fees, and “auxiliary” operations, which include room and board. But they can’t afford complacency.

“To the extent that even a large university is dependent upon tuition and fees, any time enrollment goes down, that presents a challenge,” Meehan said.

While the number of college students in Massachusetts declined again in 2019, the UMass system actually saw a small overall increase in enrollment —fueled by record freshman class sizes at its Amherst and Lowell campuses. Still, Meehan says he’s pushing the five chancellors to grapple with the impact of the coming demographic cliff and position the schools for what he expects to be a challenging decade for higher education.

After the recession, Meehan says families began prioritizing cost effectiveness when choosing a college. UMass’s tuition increases, though highly covered, have been about half that of other Bay State public and private colleges, which Meehan says is key in the equation (quality plus affordability) for weathering the nationwide enrollment declines.

It also means leveraging UMass’s size to make strategic real estate acquisitions — from the Mount Ida campus in Newton to the Bayside Expo Center in Dorchester — and take advantage of economies of scale, which was one of the reasons that the five-campus system was established in 1991. Simply sharing administrative and finance services across the five campuses or buying things, like energy, in bulk for the system yields meaningful cost savings, according to Meehan.

“Sometimes these changes in efficiency and effectiveness can be difficult to get campuses to embrace, but I think we have to,” he said.

Unlike the effort by Hampshire to carve out a defined niche, UMass is also trying to use its size to expand its appeal — or “meet students where they are.” Meehan notes that there’s an estimated 1 million adults in Massachusetts that have started, but not finished, their college degree. Last year, he announced plans to create a new online college aimed at pulling adults from online-learning giants like Southern New Hampshire University.

“This is about breaking down the barriers in time, distance, and finances, so that people can complete their degree,” Meehan said, adding that the online programs could potentially generate revenue to support full-time UMass students.

While he thinks UMass is “strongly positioned,” Meehan acknowledges that there still may be cases where further “rightsizing” is needed.

“We need to be vigilant; in terms of those programs where enrollment is going down, we need to cut back,” he said. “Those programs where enrollment goes up, we need to embrace those programs.”

In that one respect, UMass isn’t too different from Hampshire. Meehan does predict further consolidations and closures of small colleges, which he believes need to “figure out a different business model.”

UMass President Marty Meehan speaking during last year’s commencement ceremony at the flagship Amherst campus. —Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe

For his part, Wingenbach tries to be optimistic.

Given the fact that liberal arts students already make up only a tiny — and declining — fraction of the national college-age population (compared to large, research universities), Wingenbach says Hampshire and other similarly situated schools only have to modestly increase their share of the overall pool.

“That trend could switch around,” Wingenbach said. “And if it switches around a little bit, most of these small schools will be OK.”

But even he expects more small colleges to close or consolidate. The question is which ones.

“The small colleges that figure out precisely how to position themselves in a distinctive way and can articulate really clearly why what they do is valuable and then match their resources to their expenses as they pursue that — they’re going to be OK,” Wingenbach said. “It’s the colleges that put off those kind of decisions, that continue to think, ‘We’ll be a little bit good at everything and we won’t make decisions about what we will and won’t do,’ they’re slowly going to run out of time.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Hampshire cut over 80 faculty positions last spring. Hampshire’s staffing changes have been clarified above.