Area College Hits the Books

June 23, 2014 Updated Jun 23, 2014 at 7:36 AM EDT

By Dan Miner, Reporter- Business First

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Area College Hits the Books

June 23, 2014 Updated Jun 23, 2014 at 7:36 AM EDT

Villa Maria College officials know exactly where their institution has been: a commuter, Catholic arts college specializing in two-year degrees that's often overlooked even in its Buffalo region backyard.

And while they're not critical of Villa Maria's past or its present iteration - where bachelor's degrees are offered, and some students live in nearby Collegiate Village - they've taken a deep look inward and decided it's time for a measured evolution.

Hence, the college's "visionary plan," approved last week by its board of trustees, which will be integrated into Villa Maria's five-year strategic plan. The result will be a road map for a variety of initiatives, from enrollment growth to on-campus housing, from ramped-up fundraising efforts to new curricular pathways, from the establishment of intercollegiate athletics to a significant expansion in services to help underprepared students thrive in college and become high-functioning professionals.

That last tenet - student achievement and the success of graduates - has become increasingly important in these days of extreme scrutiny of higher educational institutions, said Matthew Giordano, vice president of academic affairs.

Everybody from parents to media organizations to peer institutions are watching, which presents an opportunity of sorts.

"People are watching colleges very closely, and the college that can perform well with providing students the right outcomes, those are going to be the colleges that survive and thrive well into the future," Giordano said.

Giordano repeated words out of the visioning plan, that the college seeks to "become the premier student-centered college in Western New York," but he's also aware that Villa Maria isn't the only local college that's taking active hold of its future. The number of high school students in Western New York is in the midst of a significant decline - but there's a simultaneous push to open up new populations of high schoolers to a college degree. That's a focus all the way from the federal government and President Barack Obama to the Say Yes to Education Buffalo initiative, where the main incentive to student achievement is a pledge of free college tuition for graduates of Buffalo public schools.

Say Yes hasn't yet unveiled the retention numbers from its first cohort, who entered college in fall 2013, but Villa Maria officials say they initially enrolled 38 and will retain 18 of those, while admitting roughly 30 new Say Yes students as college freshmen.

Those students, who are enrolling in several local colleges in significant numbers, also require extra support and Villa Maria isn't the only local college boasting of services and a general environment that can bring them success.

The changes aren't solely focused on remedial programs, as the athletics piece and an honors program are designed to attract a new type of student that might have considered Villa Maria' academic offerings in the past but chosen elsewhere because a lack of extra programs.

But Giordano said the college's deep commitment to help underprepared students will be the most important factor defining its success going forward.

"What we hope to get out of this is to be a leader in the area and providing this type of education," he said. "We hope that we're recognized beyond this area, because it's a national conversation and a lot of people are watching right now."