The College is widely known for its alternative curriculum, its focus on portfolios rather than distribution requirements, and its reliance on narrative evaluations instead of grades and GPAs. It is known particularly for facilitating the study of film, theater, and the visual arts. In some fields it is among the top undergraduate institutions in graduate-school enrollment: fifty-six percent of its alumni have at least one graduate degree and it is ranked 30th among all US colleges in the percentage of its graduates who go on to attain a doctorate degree (notably 1st among history doctorates), when adjusted for institutional size. Its School of Cognitive Science was the first interdisciplinary undergraduate program in cognitive science and still has few peers.
Hampshire is also part of the SAT optional movement for undergraduate admission.
The curriculum is divided into three "Divisions" rather than four years, and students complete these Divisions in varying amounts of time. The administration has recently made efforts to encourage students to stick more closely to the traditional 4 year model by requiring three semesters be spent in Division I, three semesters be spent in Division II, and that Division III be completed in a year. There is at present a student enrolled at Hampshire who has been Division III for four semesters, and is returning for a fifth, which shall make him a 7th Year student.
The Hampshire College faculty are organized not in traditional departments but in broadly defined Schools - though these Schools function much as Departments do at a traditional liberal arts college. The Schools' names and definitions have varied over the College's history, but there have always been between three and five of them. As of 2005, the Schools are:
For several years in the early 1970s, directly after its founding, Hampshire College was among the most selective undergraduate programs in the United States (Making of a College 307-310). Its selectivity declined thereafter, but the school's applications increased in the late 1990s, making admissions more difficult. The College's selectivity in admissions is now comparable to that of many other small liberal arts colleges.
The school has struggled with financial difficulties since its founding, and ceasing operations or folding into the University of Massachusetts Amherst were seriously considered at various points. Today the school is on more solid financial footing (though still without a sizable endowment), a condition often credited to the fundraising efforts of its most recent past presidents, Adele Simmons and Gregory S. Prince, Jr. The College has also distinguished itself recently with plans for the future including a "sustainable campus plan" and a "cultural village" through which organizations not directly affiliated with the school are located on its campus. Currently this "cultural village" includes the National Yiddish Book Center and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
On April 1, 2004, Prince announced his retirement, effective at the end of 2004-05 academic year. On April 5, 2005, the Board of Trustees named Ralph Hexter, formerly a dean at University of California, Berkeley's College of Letters and Science, as the college's next president, effective August 1, 2005. President Hexter was officially inaugurated in a ceremony on October 15, 2005. This appointment made Hampshire one of a small number of colleges and universities in the United States to have an openly gay president.
Some of the most important founding documents of Hampshire College are collected in the book The Making of a College (MIT Press, 1967; ISBN 0-262-66005-9). The Making of a College is (as of 2003) out of print but available in electronic form from the Hampshire College Archives A new edition is rumored to be in progress.
In recent years however the school has taken several steps in an effort to expand the school and attract more academically conventional students. The most significant change was a revision of the Division I program for first year students. Before the fall of 2002, Division I traditionally consisted of four major exams, one in each of the academic departments and/or quantitative analysis. These exams took one of three forms: a "two-course option", where a student could take two sequential courses; a "one-plus-one", where a Hampshire course supplements an outside course (AP score of a four or five, or a summer college class); or a project, which usually consists of a primary or significant secondary research paper, or an art production (a short film, a sculpture, etc.), and which stems from previous coursework. Students were required to complete at least two project-based exams, while transfer students were usually waived one project requirement. In fall of 2002, the new first-year program was started in response to high numbers of second and third year students who had not completed Division I. The new program mandates eight courses in the first year, at least one in each of the five schools. This reduces the required work for passing Division I significantly, as up to 10 courses could be required under the older system.
The Re-Radicalization movement is responding in part to a new "First-Year Plan" entailing changes to the structure of the first year of study in the curriculum. Beginning in the Fall of 2002, the requirements for passing Division I were changed so that first-year students would no longer be required to complete independent projects (see Curriculum above). Though presently a major source of contention, this change is rapidly fading from memory as most of the students who entered into the old plan have graduated or are in their final year. Re-Rad submitted its own counter-proposal in both 2006 and 2007; however, these proposals were not followed, and no follow-up was attempted.
The Re-Radicalization of Hampshire College assisted the administration in launching a pilot program known as 'mentored independent study'. In it, ten third semester students were paired with Division III students with similar academic interests to complete a small study, all under the observation, and subject to the approval, of a faculty member. The program was adjudged a success and has now been permanently institutionalized.
While some students worry about what they see as Hampshire's headlong plunge into normality, the circumstances of Hampshire's founding tends to perennially attract students who revive the questions about education on which the institution was founded and challenge the administration to honor them. Unsurprisingly, then, Re-Rad was not the first student push of its type. Efforts like it have sprung up at Hampshire with some regularity throughout the years, with varying degrees of impact. In 1996, for example, student Chris Kawecki spearheaded a similar push called the Radical Departure, calling for a more holistic, organic integration of education into students' lives. The most durable legacy of the Radical Departure was EPEC, a series of student-led non-credit courses.
A more detailed account of movements such as these can be found in the history of Hampshire student activities written by alum Timothy Shary, now a faculty member at Clark University.
Hampshire was the first college in the nation to decide to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1979 (with the nearby University of Massachusetts Amherst rapidly coming second). Legal and Financial research undertaken by student Michael Current and faculty member Kurtis Gordon was promoted nationally by business activists Douglas Tooley and Debbie Knight.
In November 2001, a controversial All-Community Vote at Hampshire declared the school opposed to the recently-launched War on Terrorism, another national first which drew national media attention, including scathing reports from Rupert Murdoch's FOX News Channel and the New York Post ("Kooky College Condemns War"). Saturday Night Live had a regular sketch, "Jarrett's Room", starring Jimmy Fallon which purports to take place at Hampshire College but is grossly inaccurate, referring to non-existent buildings ("McGuin Hall") and featuring yearbooks, tests, seniors, fraternities, 3-person dorm rooms, and a football team, none of which have ever existed at the school (although in the Fall 2005 and 2007 semesters the college experienced a higher than expected number of freshmen and temporarily had to convert some of the common spaces into 3-person dorms). The sketch further seemed to think that the college was actually in New Hampshire (a common mistake).
Alumnus Ken Burns wrote of the college: "Hampshire College is a perfect American place. If we look back at the history of our country, the things we celebrate were outside of the mainstream. Much of the world operated under a tyrannical model, but Americans said, 'We will govern ourselves.' So, too, Hampshire asked, at its founding, the difficult questions of how we might educate ourselves... When I entered Hampshire, I found it to be the most exciting place on earth." Loren Pope wrote of Hampshire in the college guide Colleges That Change Lives: "Today no college has students whose intellectual thyroids are more active or whose minds are more compassionately engaged." In 2006, the Princeton Review named Hampshire College one of the nation’s "best value" undergraduate institutions in its book "America’s Best Value Colleges".