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Private colleges across the region are facing a new reality.

After years of campus growth that buoyed enrollment numbers and led to new construction, the number of potential students coming out of high school is on the decline.

“We’re trying to get the same number of students to come here from our Western New York bases in spite of the fact that there are fewer of them,” said St. Bonaventure’s president, Sister Margaret Carney. “So each of us is sort of chasing a declining base.”

Private colleges across the region are taking new approaches to recruiting students and running their campuses as they look toward a future in which there are fewer students are applying to colleges. The efforts include:

• Canisius College is expanding its recruiting efforts to new areas, particularly in communities where nonstop flights make Buffalo just a few hours away and in international locations where the Jesuits have roots.

• Niagara University is focused on taking a more strategic approach to recruitment in an effort to attract students who are a right fit for the Lewiston campus.

• And St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College are taking unprecedented steps to study ways that the two Franciscan institutions can work together.

“We know that our current buwsiness models, the way we recruit, etc., has got to change,” said Hilbert College President Cynthia Zane.

It’s not just a problem in Western New York. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks college enrollment, has found enrollment growth at private, four-year nonprofit institutions has slowed in recent years, dropping from 3.8 percent in spring 2012 to 0.5 percent in fall 2012 across the United States. Since then, it has rebounded to 1.3 percent.

Couple that with regional population declines, and the pressures facing local institutions is acute.

“The demographic picture in New York State and, really, in all of the northeastern United States, is a very challenging one now,” said Canisius President John J. Hurley. “We are in the midst of a 16 percent decline in the number of high school graduates, and that is already working its way through the elementary and the secondary school system, and you see that played out in a lot of the budget troubles that so many of the suburban school districts went through this past spring.”

When it comes to recruiting students at Canisius College, administrators are focused on markets that are served by nonstop flights into Buffalo.

“The standard wisdom is something like 80 percent of the college students will go to school within 200 miles of their home,” Hurley said.

Chicago, for example, is a difficult drive to convince potential students to take. But focusing on air travel significantly shortens that Thanksgiving trip home.

“This is where the improvement of air service into Buffalo has helped a great deal,” Hurley said. “We’re looking at places where we’re a single plane segment away, because that can get a student home in two or three hours, and we’re getting some traction on that.”

The college is also looking to recruit internationally – particularly in areas where Jesuit schools already have name recognition, such as South America, China and India – and has begun a campus-wide effort to make operations more efficient.

Kevin Hearn, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Niagara University, said the college is focused on more of a “tactical and strategic effort” to find the right students for Niagara University.

“While we certainly look to new markets – we understand the demographic changes in Western New York – we also understand how critical the role of Niagara University is regionally,” Hearn said. “There are students that are at Niagara because of how our mission speaks to them and how our mission serves Western New York, so we know how important what we do is.”

That means connecting with students not just in their sophomore or junior years of high schools when they start to think about college, but making sure that the university is a presence in the community. That could mean, for example, providing career exploration or financial aide talks at church groups or Girl Scout troops – community work the university does outside of its recruitment efforts, Hearn said.

“We’re searching for students who understand that they’re going to be more than just coming to campus and going to class,” Hearn said. “We want students to engage with the university community – our mission, our Division 1 athletic programs, our theater programs and so on.”

Hearn said the university recently set up a new program in which it has empowered alumni to speak about their college experience with prospective students.

While many private colleges are refocusing their recruitment efforts and looking at changes on campus, St. Bonaventure and Hilbert are taking steps that could lead to greater unity between the two.

The two colleges, though 60 miles apart, have started a feasibility study to determine if they can do more to collaborate through academic programs, facilities and operations. St. Bonaventure already offers weekend graduate programs on Hilbert’s Hamburg campus. The study was awarded $250,000 from the John R. Oishei Foundation in December.

“What we’re trying to do is to figure out how, together, we can build an entity that is positioned to thrive,” Zane said. “Not to survive, not to just barely get by, but to thrive in the future in 2019 and beyond.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com