This fascinating article about the fiscal crisis at experimental Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, suggests that all except the best-funded colleges are in danger of collapsing. The first risk is the coming contraction of the college-age population, which will decline by 280,000 by 2026. Second, the author suggests, the business model that colleges rely on threatens their future, with full-paying students subsidizing those who can’t afford to pay tuition.

Underlying these arguments is the fact that the cost of higher education has spiraled out of control. It’s hard to remember that there was a time when most community colleges were tuition-free because states and cities wanted to invest in the education of their citizens.

There are also decisions that colleges have made that strain their budgets, such as inflated administrative salaries and pouring millions into facilities instead of faculty salaries and scholarships. And the decision to shift from tenure track faculty to adjuncts has been a false saving, in my view.

Hampshire College is different. It was created specifically to enroll a diverse student body and to have a pedagogy that scorns grades and requirements and majors. But it is in deep trouble, financially. Last September it enrolled a freshman class of only 13. One has already left.

Poll most top educators about their ideal kind of learning for the 21st century, and they’ll probably sound a lot like a Hampshire student. The virtues of open-ended thinking and project-based learning will be familiar to any Washington parent who has toured a bougie preschool. But thanks to a slow recovery from the 2008 recession, rising student debt and class anxiety, parents and students are looking at college less as an intellectual experience and more as an insurance policy — and that calls for colleges that offer proven outcomes, measurable skills or exceptional prestige.

All this means that private colleges like Hampshire are struggling to find enough students able or willing to pay their high sticker prices, and the situation is only likely to get worse. Because of low birthrates following the Great Recession, Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe predicts that the four-year-college applicant pool is likely to shrink by almost 280,000 per class, over four years, starting in 2026, a year known in higher ed as “the Apocalypse.” As youth populations decline everywhere but the southern and western United States, colleges in New England and the Midwest will find it increasingly hard to lure students, particularly those able to pay.

The problem is the business model. Colleges have long counted on wealthy students to subsidize the cost of education for those who can’t afford it. But for many institutions, that is becoming untenable. With only a $52 million endowment, Hampshire is especiall vulnerable to this reality, but enrollment experts say it will affect many schools outside the most elite. Schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT will be fine, says Jon Boeckenstedt, Oregon State University’s vice provost of enrollment management. “It’s those colleges in the middle of the curve, with good, solid, well-known reputations but not spectacular financial resources or academic reputation, that are feeling the pinch,” he explains.

Film-maker Ken Burns, a graduate of Hampshire, heads a group trying to raise $100 million. A new President is rallying supporters. But the future is uncertain.

If the economic troubles of elite liberal arts institutions have you mock-playing an air violin, consider the consequences. For one, there’ll be fiercer competition for spots at the most prestigious schools — a sport already so gruesome, actress Felicity Huffman is doing jail time for gaming it. For another, there will be fewer opportunities for low-income students who rely on generous financial aid packages at small liberal arts colleges as one of the few tickets into the upper class. It may also mean the retreat of the only part of higher education that is uniquely American. Residential liberal arts colleges are rare in other parts of the world. For more than 200 years, they’ve made American higher education an exceptional laboratory for fostering empathy, creativity and innovation. We’ve gotten so used to them, we may not notice what we’ve lost until it’s gone.