Enrollment, endowment and the European Union
By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor
I’m concerned about Canisius. Sure, we’ve amassed a large endowment, and freshman enrollment for fall 2022 is up from last year. Things seem okay for now, but dozens of employees were cut just a few years ago. While the institution would survive, another financial “exigency” or even just continually declining enrollment could trigger similar cuts.
Survival is the constant struggle for all non-profits, not just universities (for simplicity’s sake, “universities” refers to all institutions of higher education). But universities, of all non-profits, are uniquely interested in recruitment. No matter how many students, there will be fixed costs that don’t change. Tuition and dorming represent nearly three-quarters of net revenue. Oh yeah, and increasing enrollment is part of the Jesuit mission to educate more students in a focused, well-rounded manner.
The Buffalo News ran an article recently describing higher education financial troubles. The executive vice president of the Oishei Foundation, which funded previous merger talks between Hilbert and St. Bonaventure, told the News that “the current system of 21 independent and public colleges and universities in the region is ‘too many … it’s not a sustainable model.’”
Some schools are reportedly conversing about mergers, but no full-scale discussions have taken place since failed talks between Hilbert and St. Bonaventure in 2015. Mergers would save administrative expenses and condense building space. The problem that local colleges have isn’t obscene debt or a lack of physical space: the problem is a lack of students.
Merger discussions could have the unfortunate effect of scaring away prospective students. Because mergers are often completed too late, they have a negative connotation. Who would want to enroll in a sinking ship or at the very best an unsustainable one? Disputes over names, programs and location render merger talks nearly impossible even when imminent closure is the alternative.
Plus, who would merge? Canisius and Medaille make obvious geographical sense, but Canisius is religious and Medaille isn’t; Canisius has NCAA Division 1 athletics, whereas Medaille has Division III; and most importantly, Canisius has $225 million in assets compared to Medaille’s $15 million.
So, mergers are out. But something’s gotta give. Western New York cannot realistically support 21 colleges/universities. We shouldn’t wait until the next crisis or rely on natural selection. The Oishei executive who spoke with the Buffalo News said that “innovation is going to come out of necessity.” Time to get innovative.
At a time when we teach global awareness and seek to extend their international reach, our leaders must realize that our neighbors are not our true competitors. Yes, we compete for the same students. However, as much as we like to burn Purple Eagle effigies, both Niagara and Canisius — and all schools like us — are pitted against the same forces. To demonstrate this (and my awareness of the globe, a Canisius core curriculum requirement), I’ll liken global geopolitics to Canisius’s competition.
The European Union is a supranational government which governs 27 European nation-states. It’s similar to our system of states and a federal government, except the “states” have much more power in Europe. It was founded partly as a reaction to the lessening power of European states in the Cold War Era. To terribly simplify it: Europe found itself between the U.S. and Russia both geographically and ideologically and wanted to strike its own path. Strength in numbers and all that.
The analogy: Canisius and its “competitors” find themselves between much larger independent colleges such as President-elect Steve Stoute’s DePaul University and increasingly subsidized state schools such as UB. In the short term, we’ll do fine competing against schools with smaller student populations and resources like Medaille. But that’s a losing long-term strategy. We need to sell the value of independent education, not just a Canisius independent education.
What makes the European Union possible is that the member states share common values. They are better able to survive — and spread their values — as a union. Just as European nation-states are united by social democracy, local independent schools should be united by the shared value of small, not-for-profit education as opposed to public or large independent settings.
Canisius isn’t closing. It’s the France of local independent schools: the second-largest and currently on its 25th president. Niagara isn’t closing. It’s the Germany of local independent schools: the largest and represented by an eagle. Despite their strong standing in the area, both could benefit from cooperation, as do Germany and France.
Look at the lobbying group in Albany that local schools are a part of. It just won a change in the restrictive definition of university, which multiple schools such as D’Youville have already taken advantage of. Maybe we pool resources to lobby students in distant locales. Maybe we work together to prevent duplicative programs or to streamline the admission process.
President-elect Stoute has floated alumni interviews as a substitute for standardized tests in admissions. An admirable goal, but a logistical nightmare. Say the idea caught on among local schools. Many local students apply to the same schools in Western New York. Can you imagine each school begging alumni to individually evaluate the same students?
What if we multiplied the pool of alumni? Schools like Niagara, St. Bonaventure and Daemen share our values. A prospective student could be required to speak to just one alumni of any of these schools and it would count for all schools. Each school would retain the final decision over whether to admit a student or not, while still gaining valuable input from alumni.
If all local schools had a similar application, students would find it easier to apply to more than a few of us. Once they apply, we have a chance to sell Canisius through financial aid packages and one-on-one communication. For example: an out-of-state student who finds Canisius may find they are better suited at Daemen, and it’d be better to lose them to Daemen than to a larger or public school. It’d obviously be better for the student, as well, to attend the appropriate school for their interests.
Canisius could probably handle more students if another school was to close. The new parking lot will eventually be built, I think. The currently empty Wehle Technology Center could be transformed. But mere survival shouldn’t be our goal: surviving because we are the fittest is not our mission, and it will hurt us long-term.
One look at mid-2000s birth rates and it’s not hard to see why college officials fear an enrollment cliff in coming years. But even without a further deceleration, enrollment is declining to the point where another financial emergency could force a raft of closures. Without federal money — Canisius alone received more than $5 million in COVID-19 bailout money — many of these schools could have folded.
Nothing is inevitable. Schools have survived world wars, pandemics and depressions. They’ve found innovative ways to handle enrollment decline for years now. At the same time, a static number of schools are competing for a dwindling number of students. It’s probably the case that some will close in the coming years.
Eight years ago, the bishop of Buffalo closed a quarter of the local Catholic elementary schools. While the lack of transparency and planning annoyed many, the closures were at least directed rather than subjected to market forces. Unless you count the New York State Board of Regents, which can revoke university charters “for sufficient cause,” no such overarching agency exists for independent colleges. That’s a problem, considering that closures will occur one way or another — and likely would have in 2020, without federal intervention.
It’s much better to plan now than to react later. With high school classes shrinking and public school subsidies increasing, enrollment will continue to decline. Yes, Canisius might be able to outcompete other local independent schools, but that’s a losing strategy for the long-term mission of educating students in the smaller setting of independent schools.
And besides being a losing strategy, it would be a failure in mission. Our goal is to educate students in a personalized, Jesuit setting. The mission statements of other local, independent schools such as Medaille and Daemen read very similarly. While I obviously think Canisius is the best, these “competitor” schools also serve this mission: outcompeting them would preserve Canisius at the price of educating fewer students in total in that setting.
The leaders of these long-standing institutions must work together, both in their own self-interest and to further the stated mission of their institutions. Passively accepting the status quo is actively choosing to accept survival of the fittest. While Canisius would likely survive this competition, we would be delaying our own extinction. If some of these schools do close, it would also be better to have some linkages in place so that the surviving schools, such as Canisius, are better equipped to handle transfer students’ needs.
With federal money temporarily propping up a few of these schools’ budgets, now is the time to defend small, independent education and the historic institutions which provide it. I’m not the one being paid hundreds of thousands to think about these issues, but from “The Griffin’s Nest,” it seems that more coordination between Canisius and similar schools would serve current and future students.