Opinion

Warning Signs from Hampshire College

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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