Ethical College Admissions: The Future of Hampshire

The college deserves praise for being honest about its financial challenges, but that transparency may not help with admissions, writes Jim Jump. The issues are particularly challenging for early decision.

January 22, 2019

Early in my career, I took a three-year hiatus from college counseling to serve as the admissions director at a small, struggling independent school enrolling students in grades eight to 12. I had been doing a daily round-trip commute of 160 miles for three years, and when my wife told me that my 1-year-old son would stand by the porch door at night looking for me to come home, I knew it was time to look for a job closer to home.

The situation at the school was worse than I had been led to believe. On my first day, a month before the start of school, I decided to count up all those who were enrolled or in the admissions process. I was alarmed to discover that the number was 70 shy of the budgeted enrollment, and even more alarmed when I realized the head of school had no clue. When I needed paper clips, the business office would count out the exact number, unable to spare a box.

The biggest impediment to stabilizing enrollment was that the school’s primary feeder school had just decided to add an eighth grade, meaning we would be getting no applicants from there the following year. We developed a plan for a single section of 20 students, growing to 60 for the ninth grade.

On the following June 1, we had three students enrolled for eighth grade. When other families inquired and asked how many eighth graders we had, I faced a difficult dilemma. I didn’t want to lie, but if I told the truth, it might doom any hope we had of hitting the goal. I always answered, “We’re anticipating 20.” I was both thrilled and relieved that we ended up with 22.

I thought back to that time last week when I received an email announcing that Hampshire College may not admit a freshman class this fall. The college’s new president, Miriam Nelson, has announced to the campus community that Hampshire is seeking a long-term strategic partner for a potential merger. The decision on whether to proceed with enrolling a freshman class will be made by Feb. 1.

The Hampshire announcement raises more questions than it answers. Is Hampshire’s situation unique, an indication that the cultural conditions and educational philosophy that led to its founding in 1970 as an experimental liberal arts college are no longer compelling or marketable nearly a half century later? Is it regional, continuing a trend that has seen several small New England colleges (Mount Ida, Newbury) close? Or is Hampshire a canary in the tuition-driven small-college coal mine?

Then again, Hampshire is not closing, just reinventing itself. President Nelson reported in her announcement to the campus community (which may have been designed to get ahead of a Boston Globe story) that the college’s budget is balanced and the $52 million endowment performing well. Hampshire’s alumni (which include filmmaker Ken Burns and actor Liev Schreiber) have an impressive record in earning advanced degrees. Nevertheless, Hampshire, like many small colleges, faces what Nelson calls “bruising financial and demographic realities in play.” The outlook for long-term financial sustainability for many institutions is foreboding.

But if Hampshire is not closing, why announce that not enrolling a freshman class is under consideration? The answer provided in the Frequently Asked Questions document it provided is that the college can’t be certain that it can guarantee the educational experience provided over the next four years will resemble the Hampshire experience students sign up for.

I admire Hampshire for its honesty and transparency, but I wonder about its timing. Does announcing that there may not be a freshman class in the fall during the middle of the admissions cycle inform about a possible outcome or help guarantee that outcome?

Not enrolling a freshman class would seem to push Hampshire irretrievably down a path toward closure or merger. I have read that Harvard could stay in business even if it didn’t enroll any new students for something like 80 years, but most other institutions could never recover from a poor admissions year, much less a year where there are no admissions.

With this news, how many students considering Hampshire are now unlikely to enroll? What is the impact on those already on campus? And what about those approximately 40 early-decision applicants who have already committed to attend Hampshire next year?

On Friday Hampshire announced that early-decision students would be released from their binding commitment to attend Hampshire and would be provided support to apply elsewhere. Hampshire has already worked with a group of overlap institutions to extend their deadline for students enrolled as freshmen at Hampshire. On the same day, several of those early-decision commits sent a letter to Hampshire declaring their desire to attend Hampshire this fall, even in light of the coming changes.

By definition early decision is a binding commitment. The student commits to attend the college and withdraw other applications if admitted, and in exchange receives earlier notification than regular applicants. But does early decision impose obligations on an institution as well?

The students who applied early decision to Hampshire did so based on certain assumptions about the experience and education they would receive. If Hampshire can’t live up to those expectations, then the students should be released from the early-decision agreement and allowed to pursue other options, as Hampshire has done.

But what if the students involved want to hold Hampshire to its commitment to them? It would be one thing if Hampshire was closing and unable to offer the students any kind of educational experience. But it’s not closing, just considering not enrolling a freshman class.

Several years ago I wrote about when an early-decision commitment is made. The common understanding is that the commitment occurs at the time of application. I certainly live by that understanding in my advice to my students, but if that is the case, then why does a student have to make an enrollment deposit? That’s a debate for another time.

But when does the college’s commitment begin? At the moment it offers admission to the student. Regardless of what Hampshire may decide to do when it comes to enrolling a freshman class for next fall, it has already enrolled a portion of that class through early decision, and those students should be treated like returning students rather than incoming students. If Hampshire opens its doors in the fall and those students choose to enroll, Hampshire has an ethical obligation through its early-decision commitment to those students.

I wish the Hampshire community -- students, faculty/staff, alumni -- well as it struggles with its future. I trust that its historic commitment to social justice will inform its decision making. Whatever the future of Hampshire may be, it needs to be part of American higher education and the diversity of higher education options.

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Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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