Hampshire College says it wants a “strategic partner” to help it face a tough financial outlook. But the school's president stopped short of saying she wants to merge with another college.
Eric Kelderman is a senior reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has reported on the market for small, liberal-arts colleges in Massachusetts. He spoke with NEPR about what a “strategic partnership” might look like for Hampshire.
Eric Kelderman, The Chronicle of Higher Education: It's not entirely clear yet, but I think they want to leave their options open to a wide range of possibilities. I think it's clear that they they want to join with another college or university, if possible. That seems the most likely.
I think they use the term "strategic partnership" instead of "merger" because they don't want to adopt the name or brand of another institution. That's typically what happens in a merger.
Another college might buy them, or agree to partner with them, and then Hampshire would have to change its name, and I think that the president and the board are trying to make clear that they want to preserve the brand, and the particular characteristics of the institution.
Adam Frenier, NEPR: Based on what you've seen elsewhere, might Hampshire have trouble finding someone to partner with?
The examples of a small, private liberal arts college retaining its name are fewer and farther between than the other more typical scenario, which is: a troubled campus is bought up by a large for-profit entity, or maybe an international institution.
I think they really want to prevent that, of course. So it'll be interesting to see.
I really don't know what kind of options they have, but I think by putting it out there ahead of time, they probably improve the chances that they'll have the chance to negotiate, and find someone that fits their desired characteristics of their partners.
Hampshire has been very open about its problems going forward, and its plan in general terms. But what are the pluses and minuses to this approach?
Well, as I said, I think putting it out there ahead of time gives them some options. They're not in crisis mode yet, although they've made some interesting choices about maybe not accepting a freshman class next year. I think that's on the plus side.
You know, there is some potential risk here — there is the possibility that [by] signaling future problems, that they could scare away future students, and maybe even existing students and faculty who aren't sure about the institution's future.
You mentioned the possibility of not admitting a new class next fall for Hampshire, and there's already about 40 students who made an early decision on going to the college. Is this an unusual move, to decide to skip a year of admissions?
I've never seen anything like that. I mean, there there have been colleges that have announced that they're no longer going to do undergraduate programs, entirely, and agree to teach their existing students — let them finish their programs.
But I haven't seen this. And the idea that, you know, they might skip a year, or even two years, I think, is an unusual one.
When I spoke with the president yesterday, she mentioned that they want to make sure that they can commit to the quality of education for their existing students before they admit a new class.
Struggling small colleges have been a problem in New England and elsewhere. What are some of the root causes of the issues Hampshire and others have been facing?
The big problem is the number of students is going down in a lot of those areas, in particular in New England. Pennsylvania, the upper Midwest — those areas are seeing long-term declines in the number of college-age students.
In order to attract or recruit students that they have, to keep their numbers high, they have to discount their tuition, offer more financial aid. And of course, that sort of leads to diminishing returns, right? You're getting perhaps fewer students, and you're having to pay more for those students.
So in the long run, that math doesn't work for a lot of institutions.