State lawmakers want tighter supervision of private colleges after Mount Ida College in Newton closed unexpectedly last year. Newly proposed guidelines require schools to prove their financial stability and penalize colleges that choose not to comply. Heads of institutions say regulation will make the situation of small colleges worse.
In Amherst, Hampshire College has chosen not to accept a full course this fall and hopes to merge with another institution to avoid closing down.
Hampshire President Miriam Nelson joins WBUR Morning edition to talk about the future of the school and others alike. Here are some highlights of the interview, slightly modified for clarity.
Highlights of the interview:
Former [Hampshire College] President Jonathan Lash told you that the school was facing enrollment problems just after accepting his position last April. Have you been prepared for this event since?
Yes. On May 2, President Lash called me to let me know that we had not achieved our registration goals. It was on the heels of another two years of low schooling. So, I knew in May – although I had only started in early July – that my calendar would be condensed and that it was important to understand our finances and our place in higher education. So I worked very quickly on it.
Did you have the impression that President Lash had adequately warned of school problems?
I have been in higher education for over three decades and I am very aware of the type of disruption that occurs in small colleges that are underfunded. So even before that moment when he called me, I went there with my eyes wide open.
Let's talk about the financial stress test. It has come as a way to prevent abrupt school closures, such as what happened about Mount Ida College. Do you think that's a good plan or maybe it's going too far?
I would really rather not comment on the plan because it is underway. What I will say is that I feel that it is really important to have complete information for these students and that if a college is to host students, they have the certainty that they can teach these students for four years or more. that these students are at this college. I therefore very much appreciate the discussion taking place in higher education. It is far too early to comment on any of the details because they are working on it right now.
Hampshire College has just obtained a new 10-year approval visa from the New England Higher Education Commission, despite financial problems. Do you think the commission missed something?
No, they have not missed anything. We are in very close contact with NECHE. They were very supportive. Our educational model is as strong as possible and we have provided very important details on how we are going to make sure we are financially stable. Unfortunately, following our accreditation, the number of registrations continued to decrease.
So now [we’re] looking at how we rotate and making sure to maintain that educational model when we are looking for a partner. But it's not an easy time right now, and we'll have to downsize over the next year to make sure we balance our books and get out stronger.
Critics are wondering if you could have taken more time before making your decision not to admit a class this fall. What do you say to that?
We would have liked to have more time, as you can imagine. But for now, we are not convinced that we can teach the new course for four years, as promised by college to these students. When we are looking for a strategic partner, we hope to have a different look over the next two years. It seemed to us that the time was right to make this decision.
Could your decision have consequences, for example, to make sure that students doubt that they will apply to Hampshire College in the future?
We will come out stronger, but we will have a troubling year and a half to get there. I therefore hope we can really restore that trust with people. And I think that with a good partner, we should be able to do it.
You said you hoped to preserve Hampshire 's vision of education. But many faculty members could lose their jobs as part of a merger. We heard that layoffs could occur as early as Friday. Is this going to happen?
Let's be clear: we were reviewing faculty and staff layoffs, whether we were going into a new class or not, because of our lower number for the purpose. So, it was in the works anyway. We are currently reviewing our process and understanding what the needs are, and the first round of staff layoffs could take place on Friday. We are not sure of the date yet, but we are working on it.
Fewer high school graduates are applying to college, making competition more difficult for new students in smaller institutions like yours. With all these new financial measures, are small private colleges in trouble?
Well, I think it depends in part on what the endowments are. Endowments are very important for many small private colleges. They then have what I would call a diversification of their sources of funding because they have much higher endowments than us. So I think that low-end schools are the ones that have to think more innovatively in the future. TThere is a real drop in tuition income right now because of competition and at least high school graduates. So a lot of work to do.
Are you convinced that Hampshire's unique mission survives all this turmoil?
That's what I'm fighting for right now. I believe that our educational mission is more valuable now than it was 48 years ago at our foundation. But these are really interesting moments. It is important that we find a partner who values this.