OPED: Our local colleges are thriving

What a difference half a century makes.

Fifty years ago, our two local colleges, Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University, were well respected but rather small institutions, providing solid educations to their students. SHU, strictly a commuter college, was confined to one building on Park Avenue that formerly housed Notre Dame High School. Fairfield U. accepted both residental and commuter students as undergraduates and had a larger presence at its North Benson Road campus, but was still small by university standards.

These days, according to a story in the Citizen and Connecticut Post this week, “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 Aug. 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.”

Fairfield U. and SHU are bucking a 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.

I’m a 1973 graduate of Fairfield U., and its truly amazing to see the changes over 50 years. I visit the campus often because both my daughters are undergraduates there now.

Walking through the campus, it’s easy to see why Fairfield U. attracts students from around the country. Many building renovations have taken place since I was a student; as a non-architect, it’s amazing to walk up to the Barone Campus Center, which looks the same from the outside as when I was a student, and then walk inside, where it’s unrecognizable to someone like me.

The same is true of the library building, which is outfitted with computer work stations replacing the 1960s-era technology of my day.

And a big attraction for students, and people from the surrounding area, is the Quick Center, a venue for music and dance performances, lectures, and artworks.

The school also has a presence downtown, where the Fairfield University Bookstore replaced Borders several years ago.

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.

The Edgerton Center on the SHU campus is a regional venue for music and theater performance.

And SHU recently announced that it has entered a partnership to take over the old Community Theater on the Post Road as a venue for movies and other performances.

As someone who attended various adult education-type classes at SHU over the years, its transformation is a revelation.

Given the growth and major changes over the years at Fairfield U. and SHU, it’s no wonder that our local universities are bucking the mational trends.

Tom Henry is Editor of the Fairfield Citizen.