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Opinion

Editorial

Ordinarily, a press release announcing that one of the region’s colleges or universities had maintained its accreditation with the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) would barely register as news.

But this was not the case with the recent announcement that NECHE voted to continue the accreditation of Hampshire College. Or ‘embattled Hampshire College,’ as the case may be, because it seems that this adjective has more or less became attached to the school as it has endured severe economic hardship over the past 18 months or so.

Indeed, maintaining accreditation was hardly a foregone conclusion for this school, which has seen enrollment drop dramatically, putting it in fiscal peril. In fact, for some, it seemed like a long shot.

So NECHE’s vote, which essentially buys Hampshire College two years to put itself on much more solid ground, is a milestone, and, hopefully, the first of many.

The vote is affirmation that the school — which has vowed to maintain its independence, launched a major fundraising campaign, hired a new president and several other administrators, and set ambitious goals for enrollment for 2020, its 50th-anniversary year — is on the right track.

Hampshire and its new leader, Ed Wingenbach, said they had a plan, or a path forward. They told NECHE that it is “ambitious, data-driven, and achievable.” And NECHE, apparently, is in agreement.

But this doesn’t mean Hampshire College is out of the woods. Not by a long shot.

While the school maintained its accreditation, there were some caveats, most of them involving what’s known as “institutional resources,’ or the bottom line. Hampshire’s still isn’t very good, and it needs to get much better.

To that end, the school has set about raising $60 million by 2024; an ambitious capital campaign called “Change in the Making: A Campaign for Hampshire” was kicked off at ceremonies on the campus last week. And while Hampshire is off to a great start — more than $11 million has been raised toward that goal, and the school has some good friends that can help it in this endeavor (alumnus Ken Burns is serving as co-chair of the campaign), that is a very big number.

And, as been noted several times over the past few years, demographics and other conditions are not working in Hampshire’s favor as it works to stabilize its future. High-school classes continue to get smaller, and this trend will continue. Meanwhile, the sky-high price of a college education is prompting many young people and their parents to put a premium on value and return on investment when they search for a school, a trend that further endangers small private schools with large price tags — like Hampshire.

Had the school not maintained accreditation, that would have been a virtual death knell. It’s hard enough to attract students considering the conditions listed above; it’s nearly impossible when a school has lost accreditation.

But the announcement from NECHE is merely the first of several milestones that Hampshire must reach. This will still be an uphill battle, but the school has in essence made it through base camp.

Hampshire College has been given an important lease on life. Now, it must make the very most of this opportunity.

Education

Pressing On

President-Elect Ed Wingenbach spoke at his first public press conference on Thursday, July 18 regarding the future of Hampshire College and the role he hopes to play in its success.

When asked whether he thought Hampshire College could not only maintain its accreditation but forge a long-term future, Ed Wingenbach, the recently named president of the beleaguered institution, didn’t hesitate in his response and spoke with a voice brimming with confidence.

“Yes; do you need me to say more?” he replied as the question was posed at a press conference to announce his appointment on July 18.

“I’m not at all worried about our ability to pull it off,” he went on, adding that, although he believes Hampshire College will overcome these obstacles, that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. “There’s a lot of hard work to be done over the next two months, six months, three years, but it’s the work that Hampshire College should always be doing.”

His confidence, he said, results from what he called “extraordinary and dedicated students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members who all have the will to get the job done.”

Wingenbach will be the eighth president of the Amherst-based institution has appointed. An accomplished administrator, faculty leader, scholar, and proponent of liberal-arts education, he has served for the past six months as acting president of Ripon College in Wisconsin, a liberal-arts college where he has been vice president and dean of faculty and a professor of Politics and Government since 2015. Previously, he served for 15 years as an administrator and faculty leader at the University of Redlands in California.

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education,” he said at his welcoming press conference. “There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

Hampshire’s board of trustees voted unanimously for Wingenbach’s appointment on July 12 after a formal recommendation from the presidential search committee chaired by trustee Ellen Sturgis and comprising faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumni.

The board’s goal was to name a new president this summer to help guide the college in securing its operations, planning for its future, and preparing for the coming academic year, assignments that come as the school is literally fighting for its survival.

Indeed, the school recently received a letter from the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) stating that, absent evidence of substantial progress on a number of matters, ranging from hiring a new president to developing plans for achieving ambitious goals for fundraising and rebuilding enrollment, “the commission will, at its November 2019 meeting, take an action to place the college on probation or withdraw its accreditation.”

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education. There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

This rather stern warning comes after roughly a year of turmoil and regional and national headlines concerning the college, thrusting it into the forefront of mounting problems for smaller, independent colleges dependent largely on high-school graduates at a time when graduating classes are getting smaller and projected to get smaller still.

In recent months, Hampshire announced it will not admit a full class for this fall — in fact, only about 15 students are expected to be in what will be known as the class of 2019. There have also been layoffs, the resignations of President Miriam Nelson and several board members, and departures among the current student body.

 

Grade Expectations

Despite this steady drumbeat of bad news, in recent writings to the Hampshire community, interim President Ken Rosenthal, one of Hampshire’s founders, has been using a decidedly optimistic tone. Last month, he wrote that the school was fully committed to enrolling a full class for 2020, was making progress with an aggressive bid to raise $20 million by June 2020 and an estimated $100 million over the next five years, and was filling several key positions, including president.

Ken Rosenthal

While acknowledging this optimistic tone and focus on the future at a time when many had — and perhaps still have — grave doubts that Hampshire has a future, Rosenthal told BusinessWest, “that certainly doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

Wingenbach agrees, but he has a plan.

“I am confident that we can overcome those challenges by reinvigorating the mission to innovate and lead higher education,” he said. “By becoming distinctive again, and inventing, again, new ways to think about undergraduate education, and implementing them and doing them well, we’ll restore the rightful distinctiveness of Hampshire College.”

However, both his and Rosenthal’s sentiments about the task ahead certainly not being easy were echoed by Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, who said Hampshire faces what she called a “heavy lift,” given both the challenges facing all colleges reliant upon high-school graduates, and the relatively young age of Hampshire’s alumni.

Wingenbach told media, professors, students, and trustees that Hampshire College is a laboratory to how to make higher education better, and the hard work that will happen over the coming months and years will set the college up for success.

Indeed, like Rosenthal, she said Hampshire is challenged to raise money and thus grow its endowment because its oldest alums are barely 70 — and probably still living and thus not bequeathing money to the college — and most alums are at an age when they are paying for their children’s college, saving for retirement, or putting their money to other uses.

Thus, the school will have to look well beyond its alumni base for support, she said. And it will also have to attract more students, a task made more difficult by recent headlines and words and phrases such as ‘probation’ and ‘possible loss of accreditation.’

“Colleges rely a lot on donations from alumni, but they often get donations from friends, people who admire the mission,” said Brittingham, adding that Hampshire will need considerable help from such friends moving forward.

This, said Wingenbach, is part of the plan. In order to reinvigorate Hampshire College, reaching out to not only alumni, but also those who are interested in Hampshire’s mission, is crucial.

“We have all kinds of resources beyond this campus to make sure that our students have access to everything they need to be successful,” he said.

 

Course of Action

The college has certainly used those resources so far. Wingenbach praised Hampshire for raising more than $9 million since February of this year, adding that this is an impressive accomplishment with the challenges they’ve faced.
But the college will need to continue to raise money at this rate in order to make ends meet.

Because Hampshire will be a much smaller school this fall — it just graduated 295 students and will bring in only 15 freshmen in September — the resulting loss of tuition and fees will result in a huge budget deficit. The projected number is $20 million, said Rosenthal, but it may be smaller depending on just how many students return to the campus this fall; the school is budgeting for 600.

“We set out two months ago to raise that $20 million by June 30, 2020, and we’re a little ahead of schedule,” said Rosenthal, adding that this schedule called for having $7 million in cash in hand by August, another $7 million by the end of December, and the final $6 million by the end of the current fiscal year, ending next June 30.

Moving forward, and, again, thinking optimistically, as the college moves closer to what Rosenthal called ‘normal size,” meaning 1,200 to 1,400 students, the budget deficits will grow smaller. Still, he projects that roughly $60 million will be needed over the next five years. When necessary capital improvements are added, the number rises to $100 million.

As Brittingham noted — as Rosenthal did himself, only with different language — this is indeed a heavy lift for a college this size.

Wingenbach says the cost structure of the college must undergo a serious adjustment in order to accomplish this ambitious goal.

“As we’re currently constituted, we spend too much money, and we don’t raise enough. That’s a fundamental reality of almost all small colleges in the entire country; we’re no different. But we have to face that reality as well,” he said. “As we’re thinking about experimentation and innovation and new ideas, we have to think about that framework within a reasonable understanding of what our budget and resources will look like two and four years from now, and live within that framework.”

This, Wingenbach said, may include an increase in tuition.

“We have to be thinking really carefully about what our likely students are willing to pay for this kind of an education,” he said, adding that the average Hampshire student graduates with about $24,000 in debt, an extraordinarily low figure for a four-year education. “I think it’s likely that tuition goes up, but I don’t think it’s likely that it goes up a lot in any given year.”

 

Critical Crossroads

Whether all or any of this — from the early progress on fundraising to Hampshire’s relevance in a changing world — will have any impact on students’ decisions on whether to return to the campus, or on NECHE’s upcoming decision on accreditation, remain to be seen. And they will both go a long way toward determining the college’s future.

“I think we have a really good story to tell that I think is compelling to people,” Wingenbach said, adding that another critical part of reinventing the school is going to be reminding people why the school is so important in the first place.

“One of the big advantages Hampshire has is that the value of an education here is easy to articulate,” he went on. “Colleges struggle to attract students who can pay a slightly higher rate if they have no argument as to why you should do that. Hampshire has a great argument for why you should do that.”

Reminding not only those within the community, but also those inside Hampshire College, of all this is a critical step in maintaining the energy Wingenbach says is crucial to get the school back on top. This includes recognizing the hard times in order to get to the good.

“There has been a lot of trauma here,” he said. “This has been a very hard six months to a year. Part of engaging people is recognizing that, both within the college community and with the public. It doesn’t change the fact that this has been a really hard year, and people have struggled. We recognize that and say, ‘now we’re going to continue to struggle, but we’re going to do something productive about it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

‘Turmoil’ was already the best word to describe the scene at Hampshire College. And then things got even worse — maybe — with the resignation of president Miriam Nelson (it was announced April 5) and several board members over the past few weeks.

The college is now being led by one of its founders, Ken Rosenthal, and its future is cluttered by even more question marks than there were just a month ago — if that’s possible.

But even as the chaos has escalated, troubled Hampshire, facing huge deficits resulting from sharp declines in enrollment, seems to be in a better place.

We’ll explain. For months, Nelson talked of forging some kind of partnership with another college or university, something akin to arrangements that have helped rescue some other smaller private institutions.

When BusinessWest spoke with Nelson several weeks ago, she talked enthusiastically about finding a partner that could help provide some financial stability but also enable the college to retain some form of independence and still be, well, Hampshire College.

We listened to what she was saying, but with a great deal of skepticism. How could there be a partnership in which Hampshire remained the proudly alternative school that it has been for the past half-century? The quick answer is that there couldn’t be such a partnership.

The students on campus could see this. Alums could see this. Parents of students could see this. That’s why Nelson’s plans were received with not only skepticism but criticism and anger.

As she resigned, she said she had become a distraction from the “important work to establish a sustainable financial model for the school.” And in many ways, she had, although, to be fair, she inherited a serious problem for which there are no easy answers.

Her decisions to seek a partner and later not to accept a full class for next fall polarized the campus in some respects, but it also unified in one important way, we believe.

And that is that some form of consensus may have emerged — that saving a college isn’t the mission here; saving Hampshire College is the mission. There is still some division over what needs to be done, but it seems clear that most students and alums would prefer that, if Hampshire is to survive, it is to survive as an independent institution pledged to continue its unique style and operating flavor.

This was the vote taken by the board of trustees as they were also voting to install Rosenthal as interim president.

Whether the school can raise the money it will take to remain independent and continue operating remains to be seen. The deficits are large, and the problems facing Hampshire and other small private schools are very real.

But it seems that the school and its trustees are resolved to doing things the ‘Hampshire way,’ for lack of a better term, and thus there is perhaps reason for a little optimism amid all this turmoil.

Education

The Face of a Changing Landscape

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

As high-school graduating classes continue to get smaller and the competition for those intensifies, many smaller independent colleges are finding themselves fighting for their very survival. One of them is Hampshire College in Amherst, which, because of its unique mission, alternative style, and famous alums (including Ken Burns), has in many ways become the face of a growing crisis.

Miriam Nelson says she became a candidate to become the seventh president of Hampshire College — and accepted the job when it was offered to her last April — with her eyes wide open, fully aware of the challenges facing that Amherst-based institution and others like it — not that there are many quite like Hampshire.

Then she clarified those comments a little. She said she knew the school was struggling with enrollment and therefore facing financial challenges — again, as many smaller independent schools were and still are. But she didn’t know just how bad things were going to get — and how soon.

She became aware through a phone call on May 2 from the man she would succeed as president of the school, Jonathan Lash.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned,” she recalled, with a discernable amount of understatement in her voice.

Indeed, with that phone call — and the ensuing fight for its very survival — Hampshire became, in many ways, the face of a changing landscape in higher education, at least in the Northeast.

That’s partly because of the school’s unique mission, alternative style, and notable alums such as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. But also because of heavy media coverage — the New York Times visited the campus earlier this month, one of many outlets to make the trip to South Amherst — and the fact that the school is really the first to carry on such a fight in an open, transparent way.

In some ways, Hampshire is unique; again, it has a high profile, and it has had some national and even international news-making controversies in recent years, including a decision by school leaders to take down the American flag on campus shortly after the 2016 election, while students and faculty members at the college discussed and confronted “deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community,” a move that led veterans’ groups to protest, some Hampshire students to transfer out, and prospective students to look elsewhere.

But in most respects, Hampshire is typical of the schools now facing an uncertain future, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), adding that those fitting the profile are smaller independent schools with high price tags (tuition, room, and board at Hampshire is $65,000), comparatively small endowments, and student bodies made up largely, if not exclusively, of recent high-school graduates.

That’s because high-school graduating classes have been getting smaller over the past several years, and the trend will only continue and even worsen, said Brittingham, citing a number of recent demographic reports.

Meanwhile, all schools are confronting an environment where there is rising concern about student debt and an increased focus on career-oriented degrees, another extreme challenge at Hampshire, where traditional majors do not exist.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned.”

None of these changes to the landscape came about suddenly or without warning, said Brittingham, noting that the storm clouds could be seen on the horizon years ago. Proactive schools have taken a variety of steps, from a greater emphasis on student success to hiring consultants to help with recruiting and enrollment management.

But for some, including several schools in New England, continued independence and survival in their original state was simply not possible. Some have closed — perhaps the most notable being Mount Ida College in Newton, which shut down abruptly two months before commencement last spring — while others have entered into partnerships, a loose term that can have a number of meanings.

In some cases, it has meant an effective merger, as has been the case with Wheelock College and Boston University and also the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, but in others, it was much more of a real-estate acquisition, as it was with Mount Ida, bought by UMass Amherst.

What lies ahead for Hampshire College is not known, and skepticism abounds, especially after the school made the hard decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019. But Nelson remains optimistic.

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus, which has been in the national media spotlight since it was announced that the school was looking to forge a partnership with another school in order to continue operations.

“Hampshire has always been innovative, and we’re going to do this the ‘Hampshire way,’” she said during an interview in the president’s off-campus residence because her office on the campus was occupied by protesting students. “We’re thinking about our future and making sure that we’re as innovative as we were founded to be. We need to make sure that our financial model matches our educational model.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Nelson and Brittingham about the situation at Hampshire and the changing environment in higher education, and how the school in South Amherst has become the face of an ongoing problem.

New-school Thinking

Those looking for signs indicating just how serious the situation is getting within the higher-education universe saw another one earlier this month when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to strengthen the state’s ability to monitor the financial health of private colleges.

“Our legislation will strengthen this crucial component of our economy, but most importantly, it will help protect students and their families from an abrupt closure that could significantly impact their lives,” Baker said in a statement that was a clear reference to the Mount Ida fiasco.

The bill applies to any college in Massachusetts that “has any known liabilities or risks which may result in imminent closure of the institution or jeopardize the institution’s ability to fulfill its obligations to current and admitted students.”

And that’s a constituency that could get larger in the years and decades to come, said Brittingham, adding that demographic trends, as she noted, certainly do not bode well for small, independent schools populated by recent high-school graduates.

She cited research conducted by Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which shows that, in the wake of the Great Recession that started roughly 11 years ago, many families made a conscious decision to have fewer children, which means the high-school graduating classes in the middle and end of the next decade will be smaller.

“Things are going to get worse around 2026,” she said. “The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

As noted earlier, Nelson understood the landscape in higher education was changing when she decided to pursue a college presidency, and eventually the one at Hampshire, after a lengthy stint at Tufts and then at the University of New Hampshire as director of its Sustainability Institute.

She told BusinessWest that Hampshire offered the setting — and the challenge — she was looking for.

“Hampshire was the one where I thought there was the most opportunity, and the school that was most aligned with more core values and my interests,” she explained, adding that she was recruited by Lash for the post. “This school has always been inquiry-based, and I always like to start with a question mark. To be at Hampshire means you have to have imagination and you have to be able to handle ambiguity when you have an uncertain future; that’s one of the hallmarks here at Hampshire.”

Imagination is just one of the qualities that will be needed to help secure a solid future for the school, she acknowledged, adding that, while the current situation would be considered an extreme, the college has been operating in challenging fiscal conditions almost from the day it opened in 1970 — and even before that.

“We started out under-resourced, and we’ve had different moments during almost every president’s tenure where there were serious concerns about whether the college could continue,” she said. “We’ve always been lean, but we’ve managed.”

Barbara Brittingham

Barbara Brittingham

“Things are going to get worse around 2026. The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

However, this relatively thin ice that the college has operated on became even thinner with the changing environment over the past several years, a climate Nelson put in its proper perspective.

“Higher education is witnessing one of the most disruptive times in history, with decreasing demographics, increased competition for lower-priced educational offerings, and families demanding return on investment in a college education in a short period of time,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of factors involved with this; it is a crisis point.”

A crisis that has forced the college to reach several difficult decisions, ranging from layoffs — several, effective April 19, were announced last month involving employees in the Admissions and Advancement offices — to the size and nature of the incoming class.

Indeed, due to the school’s precarious financial situation — and perhaps in anticipation of the governor’s press for greater safeguards against another Mount Ida-like closing, Hampshire has decided to admit only those students who accepted the school’s offer to enroll via early admission and those who accepted Hampshire’s offer to enroll last year but chose to take a gap year and matriculate in the fall of 2019.

Nelson explained why, again, in her most recent update to the Hampshire community, posted on the school’s website, writing that “our projected deficit is so great as we look out over the next few years, we couldn’t ethically admit a full class because we weren’t confident we could teach them through to graduation. Not only would we leave those students stranded — without the potential for the undergraduate degree they were promised when they accepted Hampshire — we would also be at risk of going on probation with our accreditors.”

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools challenged by shrinking high-school graduating classes and escalating competition for those students.

While reaching those decisions, leaders at the college have also been working toward a workable solution, a partnership of some kind that will enable the school to maintain its mission and character.

Ongoing work to reach that goal has been rewarding on some levels, but quite difficult on all others because of the very public nature of this exercise, said Nelson, adding that her first eight months on the job have obviously been challenging personally.

She said the campus community never really got to know her before she was essentially forced into crisis management.

And now, the already-tenuous situation has been compounded by negativism, criticism (Nelson has reportedly been threatened with a vote of no confidence from the faculty), and rumors.

“There’s a lot of chaos and false narratives out there,” she explained. “So I’ve been working really hard both in print and in many assemblies and meetings to get accurate information out. This is a world with lots of false narratives and conspiracy theories; we heard another one yesterday — they’re really creative and interesting. I don’t know how people think them up.”

Textbook Case?

As she talked about the ongoing process of finding a partnership and some kind of future for Hampshire College, Nelson said she’s received a number of phone calls offering suggestions, support, and forms of encouragement as she goes about her work in a very public way.

One such call was from a representative of the Mellon Foundation.

“He said he’s never seen a college do this in a transparent way like we are,” she said. “He’s right, and when you’re doing it in real time, and transparently, it’s going to be clunky; it’s not like you’ve got every detail worked out and figured out right at the very beginning. We’re doing the figuring out in a public way and engaging with the community and our alums and the broader community and the higher-ed community as we do this.

“It’s a very different way to do it, and no one has ever done it; it is a very Hampshire way,” she went on. “But that makes it really hard, and I can see why every other president who has been in this place has not done this in an open way. I understand it.”

Miriam Nelson

Miriam Nelson says Hampshire College is determining the next stage in its history in real time, which means the process will be “clunky.”

Elaborating, she said there are no textbooks that show schools and their leaders how to navigate a situation like this, and thus she’s relying heavily on her board (in the past, it met every quarter; now it meets every week), the faculty, students, and other college presidents as she goes about trying to find a workable solution.

And there are some to be found, said Brittingham, adding that several effective partnerships have been forged in recent years that have enabled both private and public schools to remain open.

Perhaps the most noted recent example is Wheelock and Boston University, although it came about before matters reached a crisis level.

“Wheelock looked ahead and felt that, while they were OK at that moment, given the trends, given their resources, and given their mission, over time, they were going to be increasingly challenged,” she explained. “So they decided that sooner, rather than later, they should look for a partner, which turned out to be Boston University, which Wheelock essentially merged into.

“That’s seen as a good arrangement, it was handled well, and they were able to preserve the name of the founder in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University,” she went on. “They were able to transition a large number of faculty and staff to Boston University, it was geographically close … it’s been a smooth transition.”

Another partnership that fits that description is the one between two small public colleges in Vermont — Johnson State College and Lyndon State College.

“They had compatible missions — one of them was more liberal-arts-oriented, and the other was more focused on career programs — so they merged and became Northern Vermont University,” she said, adding that the merger allows them to share central services and thus gain efficiencies in overall administration.

Whether Hampshire can find such an effective working arrangement remains to be seen, but Nelson takes a positive, yet realistic outlook.

“I continue to be optimistic because Hampshire is an exceptional place with a great reputation,” she said. “But it’s not easy facing layoffs and things like that. But I believe this year, 2019, will be the toughest year, and then things will get better.”

Charting a New Course

Time will tell whether this projection comes to pass.

The decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019 is seen by some as a perhaps fateful step, one that will make it that much harder to put the college on firmer financial ground moving forward.

But Nelson, as noted, is optimistic that the ‘Hampshire way’ will yield what could become a model for other schools to follow in the years and decades to come, as the higher-education landscape continues to evolve.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

It’s a logical step, but the recent decision by the University of Massachusetts to create a national online college is one that can perhaps best be summed up with that phrase risk/reward.

Indeed, there are certainly potential rewards, but also some huge risks and certainly no guarantees of success with this planned enterprise. Like the school’s venture into big-time college football a decade or so ago, this move is certainly not as easy as it looks and will require a large investment, time, patience, and even some luck.

More on that later, but first the ‘logical step’ part.

The announcement made earlier this month by UMass President Martin Meehan certainly makes a great deal of sense given recent demographic trends and other factors that are impacting almost every college in the country, large or small.

High-school classes are getting smaller, and they’re going to continue to get smaller for at least another decade as families have fewer children. These smaller pools of high-school graduates are going to affect both smaller private schools like Hampshire College in Amherst and larger public universities like UMass, but in some ways, those public institutions will likely benefit from these demographic shifts as students and their families look for landing spots on firm financial ground.

But it only makes sense for a growth-minded institution to look beyond traditional students and toward older adults (non-traditional students) seeking to continue their education or finish a degree program — individuals who are prime candidates for online learning because of its flexibility and convenience (specifically, the opportunity to learn from home).

It makes so much sense that many growth-minded institutions are thinking along these same terms. In fact, UMass might actually be considered late to this party — although hopefully not too late.

Several large institutions such as Purdue, Arizona State, and the University of Maryland have established highly successful online programs, as have some smaller schools, such as Southern New Hampshire University. And, right here in the 413, Bay Path University formed the American Women’s College, an online school that has helped change the fortunes of the former two-year college in a profound way.

On the other side of the scorecard, however, several schools have launched online programs that have not met expectations, and still others have essentially scuttled their initiatives after years of high-cost underperformance.

The bottom line is that online education programs are, contrary to public opinion, quite expensive, rather complicated, and immensely competitive. Officials at UMass say this matter has been thought through thoroughly and that there is tremendous opportunity for growth — if they move quickly and properly.

“The time for us to act is now,” Meehan said in announcing the plans during his annual report on the state of the five-campus university system at the UMass Club in Boston. “It’s predicted that, over the next several years, four to five major national players with strong regional footholds will be established. We intend to be one of them.”

He’s certainly right about the first part of that equation — there will be several established in a few years. As for the second part, we hope he’s right about that, too.

But as several schools have already discovered, breaking into the online market is a challenging proposition.

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, there have been rumblings from the world of higher education. Rumblings that times were changing and times were not particularly good. Rumblings that in some cases led to mergers among colleges, even a closing or two, and predictions that more were likely to come.

But the rumblings seemed far away, involving small institutions most of us had never heard of — Mount Ida College, Newbury College, the College of St. Joseph.

All of that changed last week, when Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson dropped what seemed like a bombshell, but what was in reality news that many saw coming. She announced that, amid falling enrollment and declining revenues, the nearly half-century-old college has commenced a search for a partner to help secure its future. The situation is so dire that school officials are not even sure if they’re going to admit a freshman class for this coming fall.

That decision will come in the near future, and in the meantime, the school will search hard for a merger partner, preferably one that will not only help it get back on solid financial footing, but enable it to maintain its non-traditional approach — there are no grades here, for example — and decidedly different ways of doing things.

Nelson is confident that such a partner can be found — other schools, such as Wheelock College, have forged such partnerships, in its case with Boston University — but time will tell.

Meanwhile, the announcement from Hampshire College should serve as a wake-up call, not that anyone in higher education really needed one, that times are, indeed, changing, and that imaginative, proactive steps are needed to secure the future of such institutions.

Numbers lie at the heart of this problem — all kinds of numbers, but especially those pertaining to the size of high-school graduating classes. They’ve been falling steadily over the past several years, and at an alarming rate.

With fewer students going to college, a survival-of-the-fittest scenario is emerging, and there are high stakes, not only for the colleges involved but the communities in which they reside.

Indeed, it’s no secret that, in addition to healthcare, education is the other pillar of the region’s economy — hence the phrase ‘eds and meds.’

Fortunately, for the most part, the ‘eds’ sector locally remains quite strong, and many institutions are faring well, primarily because they are fitter than some others.

And by fit, we mean aggressive in efforts to develop new programs and new revenue streams, and also tell their story. In short, they are not sitting on their hands, hoping and believing that times will get better and that what has worked in the past will work in the future.

At the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, this is exactly what has happened at Hampshire, and also Mount Ida and other schools.

Several schools in this area have been very proactive in finding new ways to attract students and remain vibrant. Bay Path University and the emergence of its cybersecurity programs is a good example (and there are many others there), and American International College’s ambitious expansion of its graduate programs (a strong sources of revenue) is another example.

The demographic patterns we’re seeing today are not projected to change anytime soon. High-school graduating classes are going to continue to get smaller, and colleges of all sizes — even this region’s community colleges — must be creative and entrepreneurial in their planning if they intend to not only survive but thrive.

If they’re not, there may well be more press conferences like the one at Hampshire College last week.

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