Ken Burns Is Trying to Save This Liberal Arts College — Before it Dies

With a staggering $65,000 annual price tag, the market has been unfriendly to Hampshire College.

AMHERST, Massachusetts — Hampshire College is in trouble. The liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts was founded in 1970 as a radical experiment in education: There are no grades, and students chart their own coursework. But now the school is finding itself on the verge of bankruptcy and in danger of shutting down.

Hampshire College costs about $65,000 a year to attend, but only has an endowment of about $48.5 million — which pales in comparison to other, older colleges (neighboring Amherst College has a $2.2 billion dollar endowment, for example). Student enrollment steadily declining over the last few years could mean the death knell for the school, as tuition and fees make up about 90% of their operating budget.


But Hampshire is not alone in this: according to Moody’s, at least 25% of private colleges are now running deficits. Several New England colleges have closed in the last few years, and Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen predicts it’ll only get worse: He claims that as many as half of America’s colleges/universities will go bankrupt or close within the decade.

Things got so bad at Hampshire this year that administrators started looking for a strategic partner and decided to accept almost no new students in the fall. These decisions did not sit well with the majority of faculty, staff and students. Students felt it threatened the future and independent character of Hampshire College and staged protests, including a 75-day sit-in at the office of President Miriam Nelson. Eventually, Nelson resigned, along with about a third of the school’s board of directors.

Students and alumni are now trying to save the school and raise about $100 million over the next five years, in a push led by one of their most famous alumni: Ken Burns.

He’s urging alumni to donate an amount “that hurts, and then multiply it by 4,” because he strongly believes Hampshire’s education model — while maybe not very profitable — is worth saving. “I am the living proof,” he told VICE News. “And there are thousands of other people who are the living proof of the value of a Hampshire education.”

This segment originally aired June 7, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.