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Canisius College overcomes enrollment challenges, president says

Canisius College’s financial footing is the best it’s been in five years, President John J. Hurley said Wednesday, adding that the “worst of the demographic decline” that led to enrollment challenges at the college and at others in the area probably was overr.

The college finished its 2014-15 fiscal year with its first operating surplus in several years, grew its endowment to $108 million and refinanced $54 million in long-term debt, Hurley said at his annual convocation address inside the Montante Cultural Center on campus.

But he also cautioned the college can’t return to the old way of doing things and that further belt-tightening might be necessary in a time when academia faces intense scrutiny about high costs.

“We have learned that in a college whose budget is 90 percent driven by student revenues, our pursuit of academic excellence must be qualified oftentimes by the reality of our budget and our students’ ability to pay,” he said.

Hurley completed his fifth year as Canisius president in June, and the college’s Board of Trustees recently extended his contract for another five years.

Despite a smaller-than-expected freshman class of 608 students, the undergraduate enrollment for the fall semester, 2,556 students, was “slightly above” projections, thanks to the college’s ability to retain more upperclass students than it had anticipated.

Undergraduate enrollment, though, is down 19 percent from 2012-13.

The area’s largest private college – which had reduced faculty, administration and other staff in recent years to account for lost revenue from enrollment declines – this past year cut back on the amount of tuition discounts it offered students.

“This may mean we sometimes opt for a smaller class size that enables us to remain academically more selective, rather than be more aggressive in our admissions and financial aid awards simply to recruit more students,” said Hurley, who spoke for about 40 minutes to a mix of a few hundred faculty, alumni, staff, students and trustees.

Hurley outlined plans to raise $35 million so construction can begin in early 2017 on the final phase of Science Hall for biology and chemistry.

He reported that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education recently reaffirmed the college’s accreditation, with the caveat that the college submit a “monitoring report” by next September that addresses how the college plans to assess its core curriculum.

While the college has been able to adjust its operating budget to accommodate lower enrollments, Hurley said it doesn’t mean that Canisius is “accepting lower enrollment as a given.”

The college was stepping up its recruiting in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and the Chicago area. “This will take concerted effort over a longer period of time, because we just don’t have the same established name recognition in these markets,” he said.