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Trustees at two Roman Catholic colleges in Western New York want to look at each other’s books in what may be the first step toward a new and expansive partnership, if not necessarily a merger.

The boards of St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College approved plans to study a stronger “strategic alliance,” the colleges announced Tuesday.

Right now, Bonaventure offers graduate courses on Hilbert’s campus 60 miles away. The study is billed as a chance to deepen those ties.

A few colleges have recently announced mergers or merger talks, but the presidents of both Catholic colleges said it’s too soon to use that word.

"Of course people say, you’re talking about a merger,” said Bonaventure’s president, Sister Margaret Carney. “All we can say is until we have that data, it doesn't make sense to talk about anything.”

Neither president said a merger is out of the question. Instead, they said decisions of that sort are up to boards. The only action trustees have authorized so far is a study of finances and other obligations.

Officials at both institutions are worried about a regional decline in enrollment. Western New York is expected to graduate one-sixth fewer high school students by the end of the decade.

Bonaventure, a residential college of about 1,800 students, missed its enrollment target this fall. Officials hoped for a freshman class of 525 students, but saw only 486 enroll, Sister Margaret said. Enrollments have been off for the past three years, she said.

"That said, it's problematic for us, but we're not back to the wall, or shaking in the knees or anything like that,” Sister Margaret said. “We're facing an enrollment downturn not unlike anything else colleges are facing, particularly in the Northeast.”

Hilbert, which is mostly nonresidential, is also worried about declines, though college President Cynthia Zane said enrollment has been flat.

The flat numbers are good, she said, but action needs to be taken before things sour.

"In our viewpoint, we need to strategize now, we need to strategize when we are still -- when we are in good shape,” Zane said.

Both institutions are part of a group of seven Catholic colleges in the Diocese of Buffalo. Zane said if any of them grow in the current environment it means one institution is cannibalizing students from another. "We follow these trends, we know this isn't going to get easier,” Zane said.

Sister Margaret said part of the reason they made the trustees’ decision public now – even if they can’t say for sure what will come of it – is to tamp down on rumors that would have otherwise spread.

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