A small innovative four-year college in western Massachusetts has publicly acknowledged facing stiff headwinds as it charts a course into a second half-century.
Hampshire College is considering not admitting a new freshman class this year while options are weighed for the future of the almost 50-year-old school where students design their own programs of study.
Saying there are “bruising financial and demographic realities in play,” college President Miriam “Mim” Nelson, announced Tuesday that a “long-term strategic partnership” is being sought.
"Is this a merger?" Nelson said it is one possiblity that would be explored over the next six months. She cited the recent merger of Wheelock College and Boston University as a possible model for Hampshire College's future.
Nelson said the college, which has an endowment valued at about $56 million, can balance its books for the next couple of years, but after that projections show it will be difficult to stay out of the red.
Small liberal arts colleges across the county are facing financial pressures as the college-age population shrinks and costs rise.
" This is an unusual step to take, to be announcing this, but we are an unusual college," said Nelson.
Nelson, who became Hampshire College president last July met with reporters after revealing the decision in a letter to the campus community.
She said a decision on whether to admit a freshman class should be made before the February 1st admission’s deadline.
" We are going to take a moment in time to decide about that incoming class," said Nelson. "We think it is a moral question."
39 students already accepted to Hampshire College through an early admissions program will be contacted individually by officials in the admissions office.
Hampshire, which opened in Amherst in 1970, currently has an enrollment of 1,400 students. Nelson said she hopes the news does not prompt an exodus.
" We have an education model nobody else has, so I hope the students will stick it out with us through these times," said Nelson.
The announcement was made while students were still on the winter break between semesters.
Piper Patterson, who graduated last May, was working at the coffee bar in the student center.
" They have not given us a whole lot information, so I am looking forward to finding out more," said Patterson. " I obviously care about this college and its future."
Hampshire College is part of the Five College consortium that includes Amherst College, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and UMass Amherst. The schools share certain resources, such as a fiber optic network, and students can take classes on each of the campuses.
None of the schools said immediately on Tuesday that they were interested in merging.