Of the more than 2,000 nonprofit four-year colleges and universities in the United States, more than half of them are defined as small schools, enrolling fewer than 2,000 students each year.
While these colleges make up the majority of degree-granting institutions across the country, they are also often in delicate financial shape. Increasingly, small liberal arts schools are shutting down entirely; the rate of small schools closing has grown from about eight per year earlier this century to a projected 20 annually going forward. EducationDive's statistics indicate seven have already announced closure in 2019, with an eighth expected to follow by the end of the year.
The biggest challenge for many of these smaller colleges is maintaining funding. Often, these institutions operate on small endowments -- Mount Ida College, which closed in 2018, for example, only had an endowment of $23.5 million in 2016, compared to the multibillion endowments of big schools like the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, or Princeton. With these less sizable endowments, small colleges' revenues are dependent on consistent enrollment, something that can be tricky to maintain when competing with larger universities that can pour money into recruitment and facilities to attract prospective students.
Small School Closures, 2018-2019
Schools That Closed in 2018
- Atlantic Union College
- Coleman University
- Concordia College Alabama
- Grace University
- John Wesley University
- Johnson State College
- Lyndon State College
- Marylhurst University
- Morthland College
- Mount Ida College
- O'More College of Design
- St. Vincent's College
- Trinity Lutheran Seminary
- Wheelock College
- Wichita Area Technical College
Schools That Closed in 2019
- College of St. Joseph
- Green Mountain College
- Hiwassee College
- Marygrove College
- Newbury College
- New Hampshire Institute of Art
- Oregon College of Art and Craft
- Southern Vermont College
- College of New Rochelle (pending)
Even when faced with daunting challenges, closure is not the inevitable fate of all small colleges. Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, is a small college that, like many of the other schools that have closed this year, has been struggling financially. Earlier this year, they announced that they would not admit new students for the fall 2019 semester as they pursued the possibility of merging with a larger institution.
For many, the news came out of nowhere. "I was shocked. Everyone I spoke to (current professors, current and former students) was also shocked," said Margaret Tyer, a 2018 graduate. "It was no secret to anyone that our school was always a bit strapped for cash, but never for a moment did I, or anyone I've spoken with, have any inkling we were apparently in such a dire situation. Nobody saw this coming."
The surprise announcement galvanized alumni, spurring a series of initiatives to raise money for the school and keep the doors open. An open letter from current and former students expressing "dismay and deep concern about … future directions for the College" received almost 2,200 signatures. "[M]any of the more optimistic folks joined up to form the Save Hampshire group," said Jeffrey Markert, a 1989 graduate who teaches biology at Providence College.
Alumni also organized Save Hampshire. Markert says that the group is dedicated to "documenting the existence of options to keep the college viable. They did the research to demonstrate that there were indeed viable paths that didn't include merging or closing." Coordinating across social media platforms, they and organizations like the Western Massachusetts Alumni group held in-person meetings that provided much-needed "reassurance and sense of community."
Catharine Smith, a 2009 graduate and senior editor for HuffPost, was drawn quickly into social media: "I was basically glued to my phone. I spent a lot of late nights, early mornings, and lunch breaks on Slack with the Save Hampshire people. It became a second job. I'm online all day for work, and it was really easy to flick back and forth between my work Slack and Save Hampshire. I volunteered to run the Save Hampshire Instagram account when we first set it up, sometime in February. I'm still doing it. Suddenly I was interacting with lots of students on campus through that platform. I was getting DMs during work meetings, in the middle of the night and I never let one go unanswered."
Current students were also surprised by the announcement. Matthew Lavalee, who will be entering his final year at Hampshire College this fall, said, "I had [done] work-study in the president's office from the fall of 2016 until fall of 2018. Having been there right before the announcement, I was surprised not to have heard a word."
Despite being caught off-guard, students were committed to staying at Hampshire. "I decided pretty quickly that no matter what happened I was going to stick it out here at Hampshire and I was going to fight with the rest of the student body to make sure this place still stands for us to graduate and long after," said Jessica Roy, a current student.
They also joined their own initiatives: "During the school year, I was involved in a few protests and sat in on all meetings that were open for students," said Roy. Lavalee said that he "was on a team that developed a multivariate regression for [the school's] finances … and admissions," which they used to try fact-checking the school's statements.
What makes [Hampshire] unique, what paints this streak of independence in its students, is a curricular focus on individualized study.
Alumni facilitated student efforts. They created groups like Local Frogs, an organizing body for local alums, which supported the student group coalition Hamp Rise Up. They also ran the Re-envisioning Coalition, which brought together faculty, students, staff, parents, and alumni.
Several of the alumni I spoke to commented on the unifying nature of the efforts, despite the more independent culture of the school. "The key thing here is thousands of us got involved, even though we're not joiners at all!" said Markert. "School spirit isn't a Hampshire trait. The school is special to us because it's unique and effective, but the idea of a pep rally or a homecoming game is alien to us."
What makes the school unique, what paints this streak of independence in its students, is a curricular focus on individualized study. For example, in their final year, all students are expected to work on an independent research project called the Div III. One interviewee I spoke to told me about her novel-length work of fiction about a mill town in Connecticut, while another detailed his plans to conduct an econometric analysis of the effect of Alaska's Permanent Fund on local economies.
"Graduate school was really much easier for me because of my experiences at Hampshire," said Markert. "Hampshire grads are well prepared for complex independent projects."
Hampshire has also forgone the use of letter grades, instead making use of discursive evaluations about student progress. Decisions like these have led outlets like Forbes to refer to Hampshire as "Hippie U." These criticisms, according to Markert, miss the point:
"In a regular graded course, you can miss 10% of the material and still get an 'A.' How is missing 10% of the content excellence? I don't want to be at the mercy of a doctor or bridge designer who only understands 90% of their stuff! By contrast, each Hampshire grad has done a complex senior thesis. If you're not understanding 10% of what you need for that kind of project, you won't be able to graduate."
Read More: Many schools are stepping away from traditional letter grades and GPAs in favor of more nuanced and personalized forms of student assessment.
This kind of innovative education is one of the things that makes small schools so valuable in the larger landscape of higher education. Institutions like Colorado College or Cornell College have created curricular calendars where students only enroll in one class at a time, while schools like Hampshire erase letter grades and allow students more input in administrative discussions than students at other colleges. Since its inception in 1965, Hampshire's mission has been to operate against the grain of larger universities.
Universally, the students and alumni I spoke with spoke highly of Hampshire's unconventional culture. After initially transferring out of Hampshire, Jessica Loy knew she had to come back.
"Hampshire challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone in ways no other place could," Loy said. "It takes a special kind of dedicated person to survive at Hamp, but I was ready to dive in and be that person. I used the evals I'd received in the past to become a better student. Hampshire's grading system may seem strange, but it really allows students to reflect and become better academics. It took me a while but I couldn't picture myself at any other institution."
This kind of innovative education is one of the things that makes small schools so valuable in the larger landscape of higher education. Institutions like Colorado College or Cornell College have created curricular calendars where students only enroll in one class at a time, while schools like Hampshire erase letter grades and allow students more input in administrative discussions than students at other colleges.
Other students echoed Loy's sentiment. "Hampshire College is a unique place that provides a stimulating environment for students who want and benefit hugely from having a say in the shape of their own education. It continues to be a positive force for re-envisioning higher education," said Jonathan Podolsky, an alum who attended in the 90s. "Our college's motto is non satis scire -- 'to know is not enough,'" said Margaret Tyer. "Hampshire pushed me to understand the work I was doing, to probe for deeper into learning."
In spite of continuous administrative turmoil behind the scenes -- which led to the New England Commission on Higher Education to threaten revoking Hampshire's accreditation -- fundraising efforts, bolstered by famous alums like Ken Burns, were successful. Hampshire announced recently that the school had raised over $7 million in three months, thus securing the necessary funds to operate independently in 2019 and admit a full class of freshmen in the fall of 2020.
Even with this success, the road forward remains rocky, and the experience of other small colleges suggests that the recent surge in donations may yet be a brief reprieve. In 2015, Sweet Briar College, a women's liberal arts school, announced its impending closure. Though alumnae raised funds to reopen the institution's doors, annual enrollment continues to dwindle, down to around 300 students in 2018. The school has restructured departments and slashed tuition, but administrators are still optimistic about the future of the institution. Other schools like Green Mountain College attempted similar financial reconfiguration, pursuing partnerships with other institutions to stay afloat, but were forced to close despite their efforts.
Hampshire will likely face similar decisions about how to move forward, but the particular niches these small colleges fill mean that, for students, faculty, staff, and alumni, it's a battle worth fighting.
"In today's world … an education designed to make you question everything is necessary," said alumna Catharine Smith. "I'll forever be grateful to Hampshire for letting me create challenges for myself, where I could learn how to fail with grace, where I could be totally weird and purely curious. I want to share that with future generations. I want other kids to get that weird, unique, challenging, mind-altering experience."