A week before students returned Hampshire College for the spring semester, President Miriam Nelson announced that the liberal arts college, founded in 1970, is looking for a partner to merge. She said it might not even admit a class this fall.
Like many small colleges in Massachusetts, Hampshire has faced declining enrollment and mounting debt. And the school is not alone. Massachusetts has seen 15 college closures and mergers, both nonprofit and for-profit, in the past five years.
For the first time, the Board of Higher Education has created a financial stress test to confidentially screen at-risk colleges, monitoring their revenue and expenses. The goal is to protect students, families and employees by proactively identifying struggling colleges and avoiding abrupt shutdowns, like Mount Ida College's in Newton last year.
Chris Gabrieli, the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, said Mt. Ida’s sudden closure, which left many students in limbo, served as a kind of wake-up call.
“Students were harmed — families harmed — and so people reasonably asked, ‘What did you know and what did you do about it?’” Gabrieli recalled.
Beginning this fall, Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago will require schools that don't have enough resources to keep their lights on for at least 18 months to present a plan for orderly closure.
But some private colleges are concerned that unless the legislature adds an exemption to the state public records law, the information they share could go public.
Santiago said he understands this worry.
“How do you get the institution to have enough trust and confidence that the information they’re providing, you’re not going to simply put it on a spreadsheet and send it out?" he said.
Rich Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said the lobbying group's members worry the stress test could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of more financial distress or even closings.
“I think we have a deep concern that those schools whose financial condition gets identified remains confidential,” Doherty said.
Gabrieli said he hears that concern but suggested the state might extend its standard for solvency — before it’s too late for some students.
“Maybe the standard should be the whole four years, he said. “We’re only asking that a school be able to stay open for the next coming year, so I think this is the minimal standard.”
Gabrieli also wants to withhold state funds from students enrolled at any school that refuses to cooperate.
“Financial aid should be conditioned on willingness to provide confidence to us, and therefore to families, that the school is financially sound,” he said.
Hampshire has no grades and no majors. It also has a long progressive streak as the first college to divest its endowment from apartheid South Africa and one of the first to cut ties to the fossil fuel industry.
In 2017, the campus went 100 percent solar, installing a 19-acre solar energy farm on campus. At the time, former president Jonathan Lash told WGBH News he estimated that move would slash the college’s energy bill in half.
“This project, over its life, will save us on the order of $10 million,” Lash said. “This is not a luxury. This is a really smart decision.”
In the end, though, going green wasn’t enough. News that Hampshire might merge or close hit students as they returned to campus after the holiday break.
Daniel Van Note, a third-year student from Golden, Colorado, said he's worried he won't be able to graduate, and that Hampshire's culture may change. But he said he understands the college's financial challenges.
“I think Hampshire is broke, and we probably have to do something to continue to be an institution, so I don’t think a strategic partnership is like the devil,” he said.
Through online petitions, faculty, students and alumni are urging the college to enroll a new class. Many say doing otherwise would accelerate Hampshire's downward spiral.
No merger partners have been identified yet. This weekend the college's board of trustees will decide whether to enroll a new class for the fall.
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the state of Hampshire College's endowment. We regret the error.