Updated at 6:07 p.m.
Hampshire College said Tuesday it is looking for what it calls a "strategic partner" to help ensure the viability of the institution going forward.
The announcement surprised alumni and current students, and left great uncertainty for those expecting to start at the school in the fall. Hampshire said it is still deciding whether to enroll a freshman class this coming year.
College President Miriam Nelson, who began the job in July, said long-range projections paint a less-than-rosy financial future for the school, which has a relatively small $52 million endowment.
“As we look to the next couple of years, we're balancing our budget,” she said at an afternoon press conference. “It gets increasingly tough for us to do that when we look at the out years in terms of the demographic cliff and things like that.”
Nelson said that cliff represents an expected drop-off in potential students. When asked if "strategic partnership" meant a merger, Nelson gave few details.
“I think there's a whole range of different opportunities from what Wheelock [College] did, which I think was a very good example in a merger with [Boston University],” she said. “There might be other different types of strategic partnerships, but it’s hard to tell at this time."
For Hampshire, Nelson said such a partnership would likely be with “someone in higher education,” but she did not rule out “another type of partner.”
‘That’s what makes Hampshire special’
Struggling small colleges are nothing new to New England. In recent years, there have been abrupt closures, like with Mount Ida in Newton last year. Others have been forced to go co-ed, or — like Wheelock in Boston — merge with a bigger school.
But that could be complicated, given Hampshire College’s unique character.
“It gets a lot of flack sometimes for being a school that has no grades and no rules and all that, but I think that’s what makes Hampshire special,” said Skye Landgraf, a Hampshire College alum who now works in higher education herself.
Landgraf said she is worried a merger might change Hampshire.
“I would rather be an alum of a college that really did end up closing, but stuck by its principles the entire time that it was open,” she said.
Landgraf said she is frustrated by the lack of clarity about what exactly college administrators are planning.
The same can be said for first-year Hampshire student Miranda Mertes. She said whatever decision is made or deal is struck, the school should be worried about current students transferring.
“I’ve been happily settled at Hampshire, but really depending on what they choose and how that’s going to affect my future and my goals, I would consider leaving — unhappily,” Mertes said.
As for whether or not to admit a new class this year, Hampshire said it would make that decision by February 1.
Nelson said she cannot guarantee the same educational experience Hampshire offers today through all four years of an undergraduate course.
“We think it’s a moral question, and that is how we’re making that decision,” Nelson said.
‘Very vocal alumni base’
Brittany Williams, a 2012 graduate of Hampshire, said the college should be credited with trying to get out in front of its financial problems. Williams said she is not worried the coming changes will alter the school’s character.
“I’m more so concerned of what the strategic partners might look like, [and] how do we ensure that we keep that core of Hampshire? And I think the student population and the alumni base — the very vocal alumni base — will ensure that happens,” Williams said.
Hampshire president Nelson said administrators would like to have a partner in place by the end of the spring semester, but that could be extended in order to find the right match.
"It's hard to be public and transparent about saying this, but we feel that Hampshire is very different," Nelson said. "We are an experimenting college, we are disruptive in higher ed, and that being transparent — being open — will help us in casting the widest possible net."
It is still possible Hampshire College remains independent and goes it alone. But that, Nelson said, would be a more difficult path.
Officials at nearby Amherst College, as well as Smith College in Northampton, released statements about Hampshire's plans. The schools are all part of the Five College Consortium, which is a collaboration of four Hampshire County private colleges, and UMass Amherst.
Smith President Kathleen McCartney said the college heard the news from Hampshire last week and that school officials have been working to understand what it all means.
"Our priority is to provide the best guidance and support to our community, especially those whose areas of work or study intersect with Hampshire College," McCartney said.
At Amherst College, President Biddy Martin told students and staff she did not have much information to share about Hampshire's plans.
"I hope it will be possible for Hampshire to identify a positive way forward for its community and the greater good," Martin said in a letter posted to Amherst's website. "The college has a valuable history of experimentation in teaching and learning and a longstanding relationship with our college."