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St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College have embarked on a study that will take a hard look at the future relationship of the two Franciscan schools, including the potential for some type of merger.

St. Bonaventure President Sister Margaret Carney and Hilbert President Cynthia Zane on Tuesday announced that the schools will explore how they might grow their more than 20-year history of working together with “some form of further strategic alliance.”

Both presidents shied away from the word merger, because it is too early to speculate on where the relationship might go or what it might look like.

But it is clear both schools are interested in developing a more significant partnership and creating a better economic model given the mounting pressures facing higher education.

“The current status of every institution in Western New York is probably not sustainable without some kind of changes, without some kind of innovations over the next five years,” Zane said.

“Any betting person is going to be looking at the horizon and saying, ‘Some things are going to change in the next decade and what way will that change go?’ ” Carney said.

Colleges in Western New York – a total of 21 public and private schools – have long discussed the potential for more collaboration or even merging, considering the saturation of the local market.

But a turning point for higher ed came with the financial collapse in 2008, which not only hurt endowments, but also elevated the public debate about the rising cost of college.

Now, there’s push back from the White House on down over soaring college tuition, and schools can no longer hike their prices like they once did.

Meanwhile, costs are rising, returns on endowments are unpredictable and institutions are trying to lower their expenses.

At the same time, competition is fierce for a dwindling pool of high school graduates, particularly in the Western New York market.

“Enrollment has reached a point in Western New York that if any of us go up, it’s at the expense of one of our other institutions,” Zane said. “There isn’t going to be any magical expansion of the number of people who might be seeking a college education in this region.

“And even though both St. Bonaventure and Hilbert recruit outside this region, there are only a few select states in the whole United States where there is more demand than seats at colleges and universities,” Zane said.

While the situation is dire for some schools – particularly the small- to mid-size private colleges that rely heavily on tuition – St. Bonaventure and Hilbert insist they are in good financial shape.

“We’re not doing this out of any financial desperation,” Carney said.

“We think with the challenges that we see on the horizon that we need to get out in front and proactively figure out how do we not just survive, but thrive and continue to offer our students a very high-quality, very cutting-edge education in the Catholic Franciscan tradition,” Zane said.

Despite the roughly 60-mile distance between the two campuses – Hilbert on South Park Avenue in Hamburg, St. Bonaventure in Allegany in Cattaraugus County – the two do share common roots.

St. Bonaventure, which has some 2,300 students, was founded by Franciscan friars in 1858.

Hilbert was founded in 1957 by the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph as a teacher training college for its members.

And for more than 20 years, St. Bonaventure has offered weekend graduate-level classes out of its Buffalo Center located on the Hilbert campus.

The boards of trustees at both schools recently approved the feasibility study, and both presidents made the announcement to their students, faculty and staff on Tuesday.

After making the announcement, Carney and Zane spoke Tuesday afternoon with The Buffalo News on the Hilbert campus.

Both St. Bonaventure and Hilbert are pulling together their institutional information to share with one another so they can determine what might be possible. The presidents expect much of the study to be completed by the end of the year.

Both institutions want this to be an open process, and for the faculty to be involved once the schools are at the point of developing specific options and scenarios, the two presidents said.

The presidents hesitated to air their own ideas until their boards of trustees had a chance to analyze the data, but talked generally about ways to share faculty or facilities.

And while they haven’t found an ideal model that could be easily replicated, the goal is to improve access and options for students.

“What we don’t want, or expect, is that nothing changes,” Carney said.

email: jrey@buffnews.com