Two days before classes started at Hampshire College in September, the school’s incoming first-year students — all 13 of them — attended a welcome reception in the campus’s new R.W. Kern Center. A motley mix of plaids, khakis and combat boots, the group lined up to shake hands with the college president and receive small bells — symbols of the large brass bell they’ll ring upon completing their “Division III,” the epic independent project required to graduate. If, that is, Hampshire survives long enough for them to graduate.
Nine months earlier, the Massachusetts college — mired in financial trouble — had launched a search for a partner to merge with and announced that it might not admit a new freshman class in the fall. Coming after a series of mergers and closures of New England schools, the announcement provoked alarm in the world of higher ed. Eventually, Hampshire offered a place to 70-odd students it had accepted early or who had taken a gap year before enrolling — but warned that there was no guarantee it would stay open.