Fairfield, Sacred Heart buck trend of falling college enrollment
Photo: Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media
FAIRFIELD — Construction cranes and hard hats dot the landscapes at both Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University this summer.
There are new buildings, new residential beds and new types of amenities today’s college-shopping families crave: climbing walls, analytical research labs, skybox-type views and town house-style living.
Both private Catholic universities nestled on opposite ends of this suburban community are are making room for what they expect will be their biggest freshmen classes ever.
At Fairfield, between 1,150 and 1,175 freshmen are anticipated to arrive on the day after Labor Day when classes begin.
Sacred Heart has about 1,700 deposits for its incoming freshman class and expects to settle in at about 1,675 when classes begin on August 27.
“There is kind of like a Coca Cola syrup” formula for success, quipped James M. Barquinero, senior vice president for enrollment and student affairs at Sacred Heart.
At Fairfield, President Mark Nemec described a sense of momentum.
“Fairfield is in a strong position that continues to have impact,” said Nemec, who is entering his third year as president of the Jesuit institution. “Our evidence of success plus location make us an attractive option.”
Bucking the trend
Nationwide, in the spring of 2019, overall post secondary enrollments decreased 1.7 percent from the previous spring. That is about 300,000 fewer students.
In Connecticut last year, college enrollment fell nearly 1 percent, although public, not private colleges, were mostly to blame.
In some parts of New England, small private universities are struggling and even closing.
Across the Northeast, the overall public and private college enrollment trend continues to edge downward as high school graduating classes continue to shrink. Tuition prices that leave students with debt the size of mortgages continue to rise. Students increasingly have the ability to hedge their bets, applying sight unseen to as many colleges as their online college app will allow.
Officials at Fairfield and Sacred Heart both say they have taken advantage of that longer reach by recruiting and attracting students from new places.
Whereas Fairfield had 17 students from Philadelphia last year, this year it will welcome 55 from Philly, said Nemec.
“We recruit where the students are,” Nemec said. “Connecticut is not growing.”
Sacred Heart is also recruiting in high schools it has never been to before, so much so that the biggest percentage of undergraduates now comes from New York.
“Connecticut is second,” said Barquinero.
Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, said while it may be a surprise to some that Sacred Heart and Fairfield are growing, it is not to her.
“Private, non-profit colleges in Connecticut are working hard to consistently offer programs that are responsive to industry and student demands,” Widness said. “Parents and students are clearly taking notice.”
Paula Moore, vice president of external affairs for the Association of Catholic Colleges, is also not surprised. An enrollment analysis done a few years ago among ACCU member institutions found that about half of Catholic institutions had seen their enrollments rise.
Those that have held steady or grown have listened to market demand and created new programs — such as health care fields — that are in demand, Moore said.
The key, she added, is to be nimble, responsive and true to their Catholic roots.
Keeping it fresh
At Fairfield, a new Dolan School of Business is nearly complete. Further down Bellarmine Road, modular townhouses are under construction. The university’s main arts and science classroom building is getting a makeover as is Jouqes Hall, one of the university’s older residence halls.
The number of beds in Jouques is going down to make room for more lounges.
“It’s what students want,” Jennifer Anderson, Fairfield’s vice president of marketing, said.
Fueled by a robust capital campaign where donors were motivated more by the trajectory of the institution than nostalgia, Nemec said the growth hasn’t moved the 77-year-old institution from its Jesuit roots.
“We continue to be very outcome-based focus,” Nemec said, giving graduates the ability to write, to think and get a job.
Last year, Fairfield captured the number one spot in the North among regional colleges on the U.S. News annual list of top colleges. Yet, there are no plans to make Fairfield a Research One Doctoral institution. It remains focused on professions and practice.
Its “biggest ever” Class of 2023 was fueled by more applicants, a more selective admitting pool and a bigger yield, he said.
“All the admissions metrics are going in the right direction,” Nemec said.
Retention rates — the number of freshmen who return as sophomores — is up to 91 percent.
High tuition does not seem to be a deterrent at schools where students leave with degrees that lead to good jobs. At Fairfield, tuition, room and board runs about $65,000, before financial aid. At Sacred Heart, the sticker price is about $54,000 including room and board. This fall, about 3,000 students will live on campus.
Barquinero said in his 29 years at the Catholic university, enrollment has grown nearly every year. Only when the demand for on-campus housing exceeded supply was there a drop-off.
Sticking to the plan
Sacred Heart, created by the Diocese of Bridgeport in 1963, is now the second largest Catholic college in New England.
To get a critical mass of students, the one-time commuter college had to build the programs and infrastructure to accommodate them and become more adept at fundraising and seizing opportunities. Its footprint today is much bigger with the acquisition of surrounding — and nearby properties.
This fall it expects about 5,300 full time undergrads.
“Our thinking is let’s get to 5,500 (students), then take a breath,” Barquinero said. “We are looking to secure our future. We know there is more market share for us.”
The growth, he adds, has not come at the expense of quality. The student profile is up, particularly in the College of Nursing, where officials say the incoming class has a grade point average of 3.89.
The campus, meanwhile, is in a constant state of evolution.
This fall, the Welch College of Business moves a mile west to the 66-acre GE site — being called the West Campus. The Martire Center, once home to business, is now home to Liberal Arts. On land once occupied by the Jewish Home for the Elderly, two new halls are under construction that is will join one already open. The suite and apartment style units will be ready by January, said Marc Izzo, director of construction at Sacred Heart.
In the fall, the Bobby Valentine Health and Recreation Center will open, meant for club sports.
“Families love the campus,” Barquinero said.