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With an incoming class of around 300, Hampshire College exceeding goals as it fights to stay alive

The building was inspired by the surrounding mountain range.
Hampshire College
The building was inspired by the surrounding mountain range.

In 2019, the fate of private Amherst, Massachusetts liberal arts institution Hampshire College was deeply uncertain. Facing perilous financial realities and internal turmoil, the haven for experimental education restricted admissions for the fall semester. Coupled with discussion about merging the college with another entity, the move prompted prolonged student demonstrations and outcry from alumni.

By the end of the year, architects of the admissions freeze and merger plan resigned, and Hampshire moved forward with a new leader in President Ed Wingenbach. He undertook a plan to preserve the school’s independence by restructuring its approach to learning and undertaking a $60 million fundraising campaign.

This month, the college said it exceeded its admissions goals for Fall 2022, with 255 new students and upwards of 50 transfer students, resulting in its largest incoming class since 2018. Nearly a third of the students identify as BIPOC.

WAMC spoke with Wingenbach about what the numbers mean for the future.

WINGENBACH: Well, I think there are three really important factors. The first is, Hampshire has been doing really exciting work in reimagining what undergraduate education should be, offering students the opportunity to place the urgent challenges of the 21st century at the center of their education and teaching around and about as an organizing principle of questions like how to act in the face of climate change, and how to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. And I think students, particularly students coming out of the pandemic, find that kind of relevant and focus on an education for change really compelling. So I think that radicalism and experimentation that has always been at the core of what makes Hampshire an exciting institution has helped attract more and more attention. When students see Hampshire, they become excited about Hampshire and they're interested in Hampshire. So that's the first thing. I think the second is that we have been working really hard to expand visibility about Hampshire across the country, and particularly in places where students may not have traditionally thought about a place like Hampshire. And we're seeing that in the outcomes here, that we're getting students from places that we haven't gotten them from before, both in the United States and outside of that. And then lastly, I think it matters that people want to be able to control their own education. And they see the value of doing that, and the value of an education that is around projects, and entrepreneurship, and self-direction, and self-motivation. And I think as more people see that and more people understand that, more people want to come to a place like Hampshire and there aren't very many places like Hampshire.

WAMC: Now, the college has been facing such intense existential threats to its existence- What exactly does this mean toward that overall effort to get the college on stable financial footing in the face of some of those challenges?

Right, so we are in the midst, we're in the third year of, basically, a five year plan to get ourselves back to full enrollment. And at that point, our revenues and our expenses should match. So that's what we’re defining as sustainability, that we can operate based on our normal revenues. So, this means that our goal for the coming, for the fall was 240 first year students. So, we've exceeded that goal by roughly 10%, which puts us kind of ahead of schedule in reaching that ultimate goal of 1,100 to 1,200 students. We are pretty well secured in terms of things like our fundraising campaign. So, we're in the midst of a $60 million campaign to help us bridge the revenue gaps as we return to full enrollment. We’re at this point close to $34 million on that campaign, so well over 50%. So, all that stuff's going really well.

Do you feel like these kinds of enrollment numbers are sustainable moving forward?

Not just sustainable, but will improve. So I think that what we've seen over the last couple of years is really significant jumps from fall of 2019 to 2020, 2020 to 2021, 2021 to 2022. We expect to increase again next year. The magnitude of the increase will get smaller, obviously, as we get more closer to maybe 315 students next year, and then 375 the following year. But I have no doubt that we will be able to continue to increase those numbers, particularly since we are seeing, continuing to see increases in interest and inquiries and people who are looking for and looking at Hampshire. So as those numbers go up and the excitement about Hampshire increases amongst those populations of students, we expect to see the growth continue.

So what's your message to those who have been concerned about the future viability of the college? Is this the kind of indication that you’ve been hoping for as the campaign to get the college back on its feet moves forward?

Absolutely. I mean, to the extent we had some concerns about the college, I think, revolved around could Hampshire continue to be a leader in experimentation and innovation, which we are doing, could Hampshire raise the kind of money to support the work we're doing, both from our alums but also from people who didn't have previous affiliations with the college who see what we're doing and see the value of it for higher education and want to support that, and we've had success there, including a recent $5 million gift from someone who didn't know anything about Hampshire prior to us starting a conversation with them. And I think that that combination of fundraising, financial sustainability, and fiscal responsibility in our budgeting and growing enrollment is exactly what Hampshire needs to be not just stable but secure.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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