The fact that St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College have started down the road toward greater collaboration – don’t call it merger, yet – is a good thing and should be an example to other Western New York colleges that are competing for the same diminishing pool of high school graduates.
Just take a look at the school districts in the area considering either closing or reconfiguring schools as they deal with declining enrollment.
The same problems of filling empty seats and paying for teachers, staff and administrators affect higher education as well. There are 21 public and private colleges in Western New York, offering plenty of choices for that dwindling population of high school graduates. But how do college officials persuade them to attend their school and not the next? And, just as important, how do you keep the balance sheet in the black? Not by raising already sky-high tuitions, if they can help it. That just gives students a reason to look at another school.
St. Bonaventure President Sister Margaret Carney and Hilbert President Cynthia Zane and their respective boards are facing up to these realities and have boldly launched into serious discussions about how to expand their working partnership. As Zane said, the current status of every institution in Western New York is probably not sustainable without some kind of changes or innovations in the next five years.
College costs continue rising while returns on endowments fluctuate. The still-struggling economy focuses the energy of the people running our educational institutions, from grade school to graduate school, along with cities, towns and villages. Increasingly, efforts to save money have turned to consolidation – of services and staff. There is now renewed talk about the never-popular idea of merging layers of government.
A closer relationship between St. Bonaventure and Hilbert is more than a good idea financially. The schools have common values in their Franciscan tradition. Bona, now with 2,300 students, was founded by Franciscan friars in 1858. Hilbert, about half that size, was founded in 1957 by the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph as a teacher training college for the order.
Hilbert is on South Park Avenue in Hamburg; St. Bonaventure is in Allegany, in Cattaraugus County. The nearly 60-mile distance between the two campuses hasn’t made a difference in their good working relationship. For more than 20 years, St. Bonaventure has offered weekend graduate-level classes out of its Buffalo Center located on the Hilbert campus.
St. Bonaventure and Hilbert emphasize that they are in good financial shape. So, it’s safe to say they are just being smart in deciding to lead the change that is inevitable.