How Hampshire College is rebuilding its enrollment

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Hampshire College was on the brink just a few years ago.

The liberal arts institution in Amherst, Massachusetts, which first admitted students in 1970, was long known for its focus on alternative education and self-directed study. But early in 2019 its leaders announced that they were seeking a long-term partnership in the face of financial challenges. Shortly afterward, the college’s board voted not to accept an incoming class for the upcoming fall.

Those decisions prompted intense blowback, leadership turnover and efforts to revitalize the college for the future while maintaining its traditional focus on independent work and close collaboration with faculty. Hampshire ultimately did admit students in 2019, but its fall class was just 13 students — down from 273 first-year students the year before.

The college’s new administration has worked to rebuild admissions operations. It’s in the midst of a $60 million campaign to raise unrestricted funding for operating costs, bringing in nearly $34 million so far. And this month, Hampshire announced that 255 students made deposits as of its May 1 deadline, outpacing a goal of 240. Add in about 50 expected transfer students, and the college expects to welcome about 300 new students come fall.

Hampshire’s attempted recovery comes at a time of intense concern about private nonprofit colleges, which are facing severe financial pressures. Higher Ed Dive spoke with Ed Wingenbach, who was named Hampshire’s president in August 2019, about the college’s rebuilding efforts and what other institutions can learn from its experience.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

HIGHER ED DIVE: Is your ultimate enrollment goal to return to pre-2019 levels?

Ed Wingenbach: Our eventual goal is to exceed that number. We would like to, over the course of the next three to four years, be getting entering classes in the mid- to high 300s so that we can build back to an enrollment that’s closer to 1,100 or 1,200. 

What was total enrollment this year?

We’re about 470, on average, for the year. Next year we would expect to be maybe 510 to 520, depending on how retention shakes out.

The entering fall 2019 class was 13 first-year students. We did better the following year, But this next year’s senior class is that really tiny entering class. When they graduate next year, and if we bring in 300 students the following year, we would then jump into the 700 range and then the following year we should be close to our target.

What have you done to rebuild your admissions numbers?

The rebuilding involved a lot of hiring, and hiring in ways that are really intentionally focused on finding people who wanted to be creative and were eager to try to be advocates for the unique and experimental approach that Hampshire provides. There was kind of an opportunity there to rebuild an enrollment operation that is explicitly centered around the values and missions of the institution and excited about the new innovations to the curriculum that we were trying to push through.

That’s one. Two, we really changed the way that admissions here collaborated with and worked with marketing. And we invested quite a bit in trying to rethink the way that Hampshire communicates its distinctiveness externally in ways that we’re not afraid to potentially put off as many people as we pulled in.

We had this consistent refrain that, “If 30% of the people who see this don’t say, ‘Oh my God I don’t want to do that,’ we’re probably not doing it right.” It was a real focus on trying to identify and appeal to the students who would be most interested in the kinds of things we’re doing.

And third, it was adopting the digital and data-based practices that a modern enrollment operation really has to have down pat.

The college has said it was able to make inroads with students who haven’t traditionally attended Hampshire — from states like Arkansas, Nebraska, Utah, South Carolina and Kansas. And 29% of the incoming class identifies as Black, Indigenous and people of color. How did you make that happen?

The strategy or tactic of being very, very clear about our distinctiveness means that when we get in front of people, we tend to hold onto their attention better.

In terms of diversifying places where we haven’t normally seen students, I think a lot of that emerges from the kind of focus on modernizing our use of data — and targeting and understanding student demographics so that we were able to find places outside of our traditional markets that looked like the kind of places that would have students who might be interested in Hampshire.

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