Updated 12:06 p.m. Feb. 24

When Alex Robinson told relatives and friends he was considering going to Hampshire College, “every single person was, like, ‘Oh, isn’t that the school that’s shutting down?’" he recalled.

Hampshire had, after all, announced that it was searching for a merger partner as it grappled with grim financial and enrollment projections. In 2019, it accepted no new students at all, and its future remained uncertain.

But for Robinson, who attended an art high school in New York, “It was definitely worth the risk” to enroll in the fall at this small college with its alternative curriculum of self-directed learning and no grades or majors — shaky though its fate might seem. “I felt like I would be happy here.”

As colleges continue to close or merge — more than 60 in the last five years, and 14 just since the start of the pandemic — a growing chorus of voices is raising alarms that this trend is taking more than just an emotional and economic toll on their students, alumni, employees and communities.

They say colleges like Hampshire bring choice to an increasingly conformist higher education landscape, serve as incubators for education innovation, help students thrive who would be lost at more conventional and rigid institutions, and turn out graduates with the kind of creativity that employers both want and need. Advocates are increasingly digging in to save these small colleges, or stop them from being absorbed into larger institutions.

If such places go away, “we lose a little bit of that something that we call American individualism, and what these small colleges deliver so well — that space in which students can entertain ideas that are quirky and have somebody listen to them,” said Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, which had its own brush with mortality.

“These unique ecosystems are where diversity comes from, where new ideas come from,” said Kieran Turan, a board member of a coalition trying to stop all-women’s Mills College in California from merging with Northeastern University. “You don’t want to lose this unique ecosystem and to suddenly replace it with a big-box store.”

When Hampshire's then-president announced that the college was looking for a merger partner in 2019, students responded with a 75-day sit-in at her office. She resigned, along with the chair and vice chair of the board of trustees, and their replacements set a goal of raising $60 million by 2024 to keep things running. Alumni and supporters have so far kicked in $33 million. The uproar is the subject of a newly released documentary by director and Hampshire alumna Amy Goldstein, “The Unmaking of a College.”

Hampshire faculty, students and alumni decided “to actually make something out of what seems like a desperate and hopeless situation and turn it into something that actually is pretty awesome,” said Kaca Bradonjic, an assistant professor of physics.

Sweet Briar students, parents and alumni sued to reverse that college’s planned closing, ultimately succeeding in ousting the president and board of trustees and keeping the campus open. Antioch College in Ohio, which focuses on activism and social justice and is governed collectively by its faculty and students, reopened after closing for three years, during which faculty and alumni sued and raised money to revive it. Mills faculty and alumni have vowed to keep battling against its already-underway merger with Northeastern.

"You don't want to lose this unique ecosystem and to suddenly replace it with a big-box store."
Kieran Turan, board member, Save Mills College Coalition

Tiny though these institutions are, their supporters say they have an outsized impact.

Hampshire was founded in 1970 as a laboratory for educational ideas by neighboring Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The college pioneered innovations such as forgoing grades in favor of written evaluations and having students complete their educations with yearlong independent projects and teach classes for each other.

On a walk across the lonely quad on a cold winter afternoon, President Ed Wingenbach — students simply call him Ed — wore a knit cap with the college’s logo, a spiral oak and its motto, “non satis scire,” which means “to know is not enough.” He likened Hampshire and similar colleges to “skunkworks,” or places where creative thinkers are given independence to come up with ideas, normally for revolutionary industrial products.

A man in a gray suit jacket and pink button-up shirt poses for a portrait in front of a vibrantly colored mural.
Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach stands for a portrait on campus in Amherst, Mass., on Feb. 9, 2022.
Sophie Park The Hechinger Report

“The radical colleges of American higher education, they’re the skunkworks for this really kind of stodgy industry,” Wingenbach said.

Hampshire’s eccentricity is evident beginning at the entrance, where the speed limit sign reads “17,” and in the tiny bookstore that sells T-shirts celebrating the nonexistent football team. “Undefeated since 1970,” they read.

Alumni include documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, actress Lupita Nyong’o, author Jon Krakauer, director Barry Sonnenfeld and actor Liev Schreiber. Activist and writer James Baldwin and photographer Diane Arbus served on the faculty.

“There is an ethos around Hampshire that attracts a certain kind of student, one that is interested in both experimentation and risk-taking, but also interested in dramatic change. They want to make the world better,” Wingenbach said. “And they don't see a lot of [other] places like that.”

That’s what attracted Robinson. He and his classmates are here to “not just get a degree, but learn and make change and ask questions,” he said. “I feel like if I went to a — quote, unquote — regular school, I would not have that at all.”

In spite of Hampshire’s widely publicized troubles, a small but growing number of prospective students appear to agree. When the college resumed accepting entering students last fall, 201 enrolled. More than 2,000 have applied to enter next fall, twice as many as at this time last year, a spokeswoman said. The goal is to gradually rebuild total enrollment to 1,200, down from a peak of 1,500 in 2011 but up from the 472 who now sparsely populate the noticeably quiet 800-acre campus in the shadow of the Mount Holyoke Range.

Liam Studer transferred here after two and a half years at George Washington University, which he picked for its size and location in Washington, D.C. There he was a political science major with plans to become a lawyer. But he found the university too big and his classmates more focused on networking than on learning.

“I just found myself getting lost so much,” Studer said. Advisers “wouldn’t even bother to get to know your name.”

Discouraged, he concluded that students at large colleges and universities are essentially cogs in the machine. “We’ll ram you through and we’ll give you a piece of paper, and then you can go and tell an employer that now you have a bachelor's degree," he said, adding that they don't “give young people that room to not just experiment, but to really be allowed to be wrong, be allowed to grow.”

A young man in a teal jacket poses for a photo while standing on the grassy lawn outside a large building.
Liam Studer, a second division student at Hampshire College, stands for a portrait on campus in Amherst, Mass., on Feb. 9, 2022. Studer transferred from George Washington University and is interested in political science and government.
Sophie Park The Hechinger Report

Hampshire is full of nonconformists, Studer said approvingly.

"Students here aren’t worried about trying to wear the next thing that’s at Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters or what Kim Kardashian is wearing," he said "It’s just great to know that people aren’t just sheep at Hampshire, and that it’s that sense of, like, ‘I’m going to do this and I don’t care what other people think.’ ”

Supporters of these places say the independent and creative problem-solvers they nurture, unconstrained by core requirements or majors, are in growing demand.

The COVID-19 pandemic has “shown us how important interdisciplinary thought is, and how important the arts are to solving social problems,” said Chris Marsicano, director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College.

If there aren’t any more Hampshires or Antiochs, “where people are experimenting in their education,” Wingenbach said, “then you’re not going to have the kind of people who will experiment in society — who will set that example that other people need to see or ask questions other people won’t.”

One of the things these schools have taught their students is to practice activism — including the kind their graduates have now unleashed to keep their alma maters open and independent.

“That’s the irony,” said Claudia Mercado, one of the Mills alumnae battling over the future of that college after administrators stated its financial situation is untenable.

Antioch President Jane Fernandes quotes her college’s first president, educational reformer Horace Mann, who said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Antioch’s alumni, she said, learned “how to be more engaged and create change for the better.”

That’s an appealing idea to people like Mercado, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who was determined to go to college. But when she applied to large public and some other private universities, she said, she worried she’d get lost. “I’m going to be one of thousands,” Mercado remembered thinking. “My light is bright, but can anybody recognize my light?”

She chose Mills, whose enrollment is nearly half Black and Hispanic, according to federal data, and where class sizes are small. Armed with that experience, Mercado said, she founded and now runs her own company.

“There’s just not a lot of spaces like that that really surround women and lift them up and constantly encourage them and help them to become critical thinkers,” said Cynthia Mahood Levin, another Mills alumna and president of the Save Mills College Coalition, who went there as a painfully shy Midwesterner and at first resisted speaking up.

But “I didn’t have a choice. There were only seven people in my class. I had to pull my chair up and have an opinion,” said Levin, now a health care administrator who serves on four corporate boards.

"We're not just fighting for Antioch College. I believe we're actually fighting for the future of democracy."
Jane Fernandes, president, Antioch College

Small colleges — even those that serve niche populations, or employ alternative teaching methods or enjoy the loyalty of students and deep-pocketed alumni — won’t necessarily be easy to preserve, however. Before the pandemic, the last period for which the figures are available, 172 colleges and universities of all types and sizes were operating at levels below what the federal government considers financially responsible. A few months after Covid hit, The Hechinger Report found that more than 500 colleges and universities showed warning signs in two or more financial metrics.

Meanwhile, enrollment for all of higher education has declined by nearly three million in the last 10 years — a million of that just since the start of the pandemic — according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Because people had fewer children during the last recession that began in late 2007, enrollment is expected to fall again nationally after 2025, according to estimates by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

“There are still demographic pressures to come, and [supporters of small colleges] are going to need to keep up this pressure to sustain a turnaround,” said Michael Horn, who studies higher education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a think tank in California he cofounded.

Sweet Briar, which offers such unique programs as women-only classes in the male-dominated discipline of engineering, enrolled 205 new students in the fall, and while that was the biggest incoming class since 2013, it still leaves total enrollment at 475, short of a goal of 650. Antioch, whose alumni have included Coretta Scott King, “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling and the actors Leonard Nimoy and Cliff Robertson, added 41 new students in the fall, a spokeswoman said, bringing its total enrollment to just 133; the college has sold off its nature preserve and radio station.

Without institutions like hers, said Antioch’s Fernandes, “We lose one of the most powerful ways to continue progressive thought and advancing democracy. Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but I believe that’s really true: Small liberal arts colleges like Antioch, Hampshire, Sweet Briar and Mills, they have a commitment to social justice and a commitment to individuals. We’re not just fighting for Antioch College. I believe we’re actually fighting for the future of democracy.”

This story about small colleges closing was produced with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with GBH News.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year when Hampshire College did not accept any new students.