Hampshire College in Amherst announced cuts to staff benefits Monday, just months after the school’s leaders said it had recovered from enrollment and financial problems.

Five years ago, Hampshire’s money problems forced it to consider either a merger or a potential closure. And that was before the pandemic caused college enrollment to plummet.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and other alumni tried to stem the crisis by raising funds, which temporarily secured the college’s future.

Now the college is suspending staff retirement contributions and implementing a year-long pay cut for senior leadership, officials said.

The college said the measures are necessary due to slowing enrollment projections and federal delays processing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

“This FAFSA debacle is not without its consequences,” said Hampshire spokesperson Jennifer Chrisler, citing a botched rollout of a new FAFSA form intended to make filing for financial aid easier.

Chrisler said Hampshire is also giving raises to anyone who makes less than $100,000 and an extra week of paid vacation for all staff.

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit that studies innovation in the education sector, said Hampshire is experiencing the same headwinds as other small colleges, but the problems are felt more acutely in a region with an oversupply of colleges catering to 18-22-year-olds.

In Massachusetts, the decline in the college-age population has already led to the closures or mergers of several colleges since 2018, including Mount Ida, Wheelock and Newbury colleges.

“There are fewer students. They’re not necessarily looking for rural experiences,” Horn said. “They want jobs.”

Hampshire did not admit a full freshman class and looked for a merger partner in the fall of 2019. Miriam Nelson, its president at the time, quit abruptly.

In the fall of 2021, about 200 students enrolled.
College officials said at the time that their goal was to gradually rebuild enrollment to 1,200 students. But last fall only 716 students enrolled, and nearly all of them needed financial aid, the college has said.

In the fall, the the college had said it expected about 900 students to arrive on its Amherst campus. That would be nearly 30 percent increase over last year.

“The trajectory is slower than we wanted to see,” said Chrisler.
Horn, at the research institute, said Hampshire must attract more students who can afford to pay the full tuition. ”Otherwise you can’t create a sustainable campus,“ he said.

Hampshire leaders have said they are committed to staying open, arguing students need more choices for college, not less.

Students there are not required to select a major or take certain general education courses.

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

Hampshire president Ed Wingenbach told GBH News in 2022 that “there is an ethos around Hampshire” that attracts students interested in both experimentation and risk-taking.

Wingenbach issued a hopeful statement on Monday that the college will recover.

“Over the last five years, we’ve been part of an extraordinary comeback and I’m confident the talented team here can support this extraordinary work, while creating a sustainable operating model where expenses and revenues match.”

Hampshire remains accredited, though it has been on “notation” status for the last five years, according to Larry Schall, president of the New England Commission on Higher Education. Notation status lets the public know that an institution’s accreditation may be in jeopardy if conditions continue or worsen.

Listen to GBH’s podcast “ College Uncovered,” Season 2, Episode 5, 'Closing Time’to learn more about what colleges are doing to stay alive and whether they should be required to disclose their financial health to consumers.

Corrected: June 18, 2024
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Jennifer Chrisler's last name.