Education Innovation

February 18, 2021


Buffalo, NY - In his epilogue in Canisius College: Celebrating 150 Years, President John J. Hurley called it a “fool’s errand” to predict what may be in store for the institution’s tri-centennial. After all, Canisius confronted two World Wars, a great depression and a great recession in its first century-and-a-half. The college endured because it innovated and adapted.

And now, it must do so again.

Though the nation finds itself amidst a pandemic, the threat is just the latest in a series of disruptive forces that have been thrust upon Canisius — and much of higher education — for nearly a decade. These challenges can be boiled down to a few general themes: the cost of higher education, the decline in the number of high school graduates in the Northeast, and the return on investment for students in terms of jobs and careers. The very nature of Canisius being a private, Catholic institution adds another layer of complexity to this already difficult equation.
Collectively, these undercurrents have led Canisius to an existential crossroads. One path would see Canisius remain on the pathway that does not embrace change or bend easily to the needs and interests of students and the marketplace. The other is less predictable. It heads in enterprising new directions, but thoughtfully and strategically, to sustain the college’s core values.
Canisius is poised to follow the latter.

“The future of Canisius will see us investing in programs that can answer the most frequent question posed by students and their parents, which is ‘When this is all over, will I get a job and more importantly, a career,’” President Hurley says. “We need to be able to respond with a definitive ‘Yes … but you’ll get so much more.’”


Ever since the 2008 collapse of the global financial markets and  the sustained recession that followed, higher education and Catholic private higher education, in particular, have been under extraordinary pressure.
The financial troubles are partially attributed to “the hodge- podge system of paying for higher education,” according to a  recent New York Times article. That system is dependent on  students (and their parents), the federal government and state governments, which traditionally provided the lion’s share of aid. But in every economic downturn since the 1980s, “states have disproportionately cut college and university budgets.” Following the financial collapse of 2008, states cut inflation-adjusted, per-student spending by 13 percent, “leaving most colleges struggling for resources.”

Further straining enrollment-driven budgets is a decline in demographics that’s projected to spiral further in the future.

At Canisius, tuition accounts for 90 percent of revenue. But in  New York—the college’s primary recruiting ground—the number of high school graduates has declined by 10 percent between 2000 and 2020, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), which projects graduate data across  the country. Moreover, WICHE estimates the number of high school graduates will drop by another 16 percent through 2037. Further compounding New York’s demographic decline is an estimated five percent decrease, over the next five years, in the college-age population across the Northeast, which is another enrollment stronghold for Canisius.

The result is more schools—with a large concentration of them located in the Northeast—vying for a smaller pool of students. This competition was amplified in 2017 with the introduction of New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship Program, which offers free SUNY and CUNY tuition to families and individuals with an annual income of $125,000 or less.


The challenges are serious, for sure, but under guidance from the Board of Trustees, President Hurley has taken important steps in the past decade to mitigate them.

An initial organizational review in 2010-11 generated nearly $2 million in savings in the college’s operating budget. This was the result of general, across-the-board cuts made in divisional operating budgets, a reduction in administrative staff and greater discipline in filling vacant positions. The following year, Canisius enlisted an outside agency to conduct a comprehensive strategic assessment of the college’s operations. In response, Canisius implemented a multi-pronged approach that improved financial management, executed spending controls, streamlined administrative policies, and began to focus on individual faculty and departmental teaching loads. The implementation of these strategic approaches drove more than $13 million (approximately 15 percent) out of the operating budget from 2012-16.

The following year, Canisius launched Excellence Within Reach, an initiative that reduced undergraduate tuition by 23 percent and brought the college’s sticker price closer to the price students actually paid. The tuition reset resonated with students and families, and by fall 2019 Canisius saw a 15 percent increase in freshman enrollment. It also earned the college a No. 1 ranking on U.S. News & World Report’s latest list of Best Value Schools in New York State.
The rewards, however, were cut short by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Within a few months, the coronavirus shuttered the campus and threatened Canisius’ finances and operations in ways never before experienced. While some colleges and universities decided to ride this storm out and incur staggering operating deficits, Canisius had to move quickly. After furloughing about 70 administrative employees at the height of the spring 2020 outbreak, the Board of Trustees directed senior leadership to fast-track a comprehensive restructuring plan. The college froze salaries, reduced employee benefits and eliminated 71 non-teaching positions. Canisius also made the difficult decision to discontinue low-enrolled majors and programs in several fields, which resulted in the elimination of 22 faculty positions. Programs eliminated include: classics, communication leadership (MS), creative & performing arts, entrepreneurship, European studies, human services, international business, physics, religious studies & theology, and urban studies.

“These were agonizing decisions because they affected our valued colleagues, our friends —  from every level of the college—whose presence and contributions we will deeply miss,” President Hurley stated in a September address to the campus community. “But in the face of this turbulence and pain,” he continued, “Canisius finds itself poised for a brighter future, largely because of the bold actions taken over the past decade and a new vision that will guide and revitalize the college.”


This new vision is grounded in Canisius’ mission to provide a transformational Catholic, Jesuit education that fosters the next generation of leaders. Central to the vision are the students and those the college serves.

“What students learn and how they learn has evolved, and so too has their definition of quality and relevance,” says Hurley. “Canisius must respond to remain effective partners in their progress toward lives of meaning and purpose in an increasingly diverse city, region,
nation and world.”

To achieve this vision, Canisius will concentrate its efforts in three key areas: academic programs that have demonstrated success rates; graduate and lifelong education; and a renewed commitment to improving the core curriculum. Concomitant to the academic strategies, Canisius will also continue to successfully engage students through high-impact practices (HIP) that enrich the learning experience, namely through student-faculty research, service initiatives and immersive learning opportunities.


No question, Canisius is reputed for its academic excellence.

The college boasts a 95 percent acceptance rate among biology and chemistry majors who apply to graduate school and an 80 percent acceptance rate among biology and pre-medical majors who apply  medical school (that’s twice the national average.) Similarly, nine out of every 10 pre-law students earn acceptance into the country’s top law schools. U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 rankings named the college No. 1among Best Schools for Undergraduate Teaching in Western New York. Canisius’ undergraduate accounting program ranked in the top 7 percent nationally; finance in the top 6 percent. Equally impressive are the job placements for accounting, finance and computer science, which are consistently at or near 100 percent.

These outcomes provide a ready answer to that ubiquitous question asked by prospective students and their parents.

“The cost of a college education and a very uncertain job market over the past decade have changed the view of students and their parents,” explains Danielle D. Ianni, PhD, vice president for enrollment management. “By further investing in our already successful programs and remaining alert to new opportunities that meet the interests of prospective students and the demands of the marketplace, Canisius will maintain its relevance and vitality in the years ahead.”

Work on this is already well underway.

At the undergraduate level, each of the college’s academic schools have taken intentional actions to reimagine and revise curricula so that they are more relevant and focus more intentionally on career pathways for students. Most recently, the College of Arts & Sciences updated, revised and renamed its communication studies major. Now called strategic communication, the program is designed to educate students about the broad value of strategy across all communication interactions, especially in digital media. Arts and Sciences also introduced a new bachelor’s degree in integrated marketing communications. This came in response to an anticipated 16 percent climb, nationally, for professionals trained to apply 21st century technology to marketing, public relations, advertising and brand messaging.

Likewise, the exponential growth of data in virtually all aspects of life and industry prompted the proposal of a new undergraduate major in data science. The program is currently in the final stages of approval by New York State. A new 4+1 dual degree program rolled out by the School of Education & Human Services (SEHS) is the only one of its kind in the region. The curricula enables undergraduates who major in history, English, math and science to obtain their master’s degree in teaching students with disabilities.

“They graduate ready to teach in their content areas and in special education,” explains SEHS Interim Dean Nancy V. Wallace, PhD. “Moreover, students complete their teacher education and initial certification in five years rather than the traditional six, which gets them into the
workforce sooner.”

The Richard J. Wehle School of Business took a similar job-readiness approach when it launched BUS-X in fall 2018. Required for all undergraduate business majors, the innovative, co-curricular program transforms first-year business students into career-ready professionals via three sequential courses: Students explore majors and career paths in their freshman year; start to develop their resumes and interview skills sophomore year; and are aligned with internships or experienced-based projects by junior year “to guarantee that 100 percent of business majors
graduate with hands-on practice in their fields of interest,” says Dean Denise M. Rotondo, PhD, who notes “BUS-X is unique to Canisius and will have a direct impact on outcomes relevant to student placements and professional preparation for career success.”

A scaled up version of the BUS-X concept is similarly required for graduate business students.


Increasingly, the path forward for Canisius involves graduate and lifelong learning.

Just as higher education reels with a decline in traditional college-age demographics, it’s concurrently seeing a swell in non-traditional students, defined as those age 25 and over who often have full-time jobs and families. Historically, the rise of adult, non-traditional learners has increased in every weakened economy since the 1960s. That growth has accelerated in the past two decades: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment in master’s-level occupations will see a 17 percent increase between 2016 and 2026—faster growth than any other education level. During that same time period, the Bureau also projects employment in doctoral- and professional-level occupations to increase 13 percent; faster than the 7 percent average projected for all other occupations.

A May 2020 article by Inside Higher Education explains the educational need this way: “As workers move across jobs and careers, they will constantly need new skills—over many decades— to remain employable. This pace of change, fueled by globalization and technology, is fundamentally reshaping the future of work and creating a need for a new kind of lifelong learning.”

With this knowledge, Canisius has spent the past five years investing  heavily in the development of new graduate programs that build  upon the college’s academic strengths and expand educational  opportunities in today’s most high-demand fields. It has been an unprecedented time of growth and innovation: 

  • Canisius’ MS in finance offers specialized concentrations in investment research, risk management and data analytics — all areas in which employment is expected to grow 11.5 percent in the next several years.
  • The MS in data analytics complements a growing need, across a range of industries, for professionals able to apply fundamental scientific principles to interpret large, complex data sets. Canisius is preparing to introduce a companion program in fall 2021. The MS in business analytics will be a blend of business management and big data.
  • The Western New York Teacher Residency is a two-year graduate program for individuals committed to teaching in high needs schools. Students are paired with skilled mentor-teachers during their second year of the residency and receive a living wage stipend. Upon completion, graduates receive New York State certification in childhood and special education (grades 1-6).

The college’s strong graduate program portfolio became even more robust this year when Canisius launched its master’s degree program in physician assistant studies (page 6).

“In a healthcare industry that has and continues to see constant change, the role of physician assistants is more important than ever,” says Program Director Aimee Larson, MPAS, PA-C. “Ours develops dedicated and skilled clinicians who follow the highest professional standards and discern greater purpose for their occupational services. They are being trained to become leaders in the medical profession and their communities.”

Also this year, Canisius introduced an MS in cybersecurity (page 6). The curriculum, which follows standards set by the Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency, gives students an intimate look into how computers, networks and software all work together. “Many cyberattacks are carried out with software tools that most malicious users did not create themselves,” explains Jeffrey J. McConnell ’81, PhD, chair of the Computer Science Department. “Our students not only learn about these tools, they learn how to engineer them to stop such attacks. This opens up many new prospects for programmers, engineers and software developers eager to advance their careers in one of the world’s fastest growing professions.”

Students apply their classroom knowledge to real-world scenarios  in a new cutting-edge cybersecurity lab, which will open in Science  Hall. Further distinguishing the program are “the college’s academic  partnerships with industry-leading cybersecurity boards, which  enable us to offer coursework that leads to specialized certifications  in Security+ or the Certified Ethical Hacker,” adds Jeffrey Spaulding,  PhD, director of the cybersecirty program. “Such certifications are certain to make Canisius students more marketable throughout the industry.”  
Certificate programs fill a niche in the regional economy and enable Canisius to broaden its access to non-traditional students.

To that end, the School of Education & Human Services restructured its teacher certification programs to appeal to a more diverse audience of educational professionals. Most recently, New York State approved an 18-credit advanced certificate program in literacy and a 12-credit certificate program in coaching. The School’s advanced certificate in instructional technologies and curriculum design (formerly educational technologies) addresses growing professional needs in K-12 schools.  


Though Canisius is pivoting its academic programming to increase its focus on offering degrees and certificates that provide a pipeline to professional careers in high-demand areas, this does not mean the college is abandoning its commitment to its liberal arts tradition.

“It is true that more than half of the 22 positions eliminated last summer were in the liberal arts but the decision reflects the realities of our enrollment environment rather than Canisius’ commitment to the humanities,” explains Vice President for Academic Affairs Sara R. Morris, PhD. “The College of Arts & Sciences is the largest of our three schools so if there is an enrollment decline, this is naturally where the greatest impact will be felt.”

Canisius is a smaller institution today than it was 20 years ago thereby necessitating that it regularly realign and streamline. Still, numerous opportunities to major and minor in the humanities remain. Canisius continues to offer majors in English, creative writing, history and philosophy, and maintains offerings in religious studies and the arts.

Indeed the college is and will always be mindful of its core curriculum—not just because New York’s charter requires every Canisius student complete 60 hours in the liberal arts and sciences to obtain a baccalaureate degree but because it’s what distinguishes a Canisius education. Through ongoing assessment of student learning in the core, the college is asking important questions about how to deliver a more consistent learning experience for students in the core.

“Our core courses will continue to provide students with the ability to speak and write with eloquence, think critically and globally about difficult issues, and lead ethically in a challenging world, all competencies that are intrinsic to a Catholic, Jesuit education,” Morris continues.


If Canisius’ 150-year history has demonstrated anything, it’s that the vitality of the institution rests solidly on the college’s ability to constantly adapt and renew the promise it makes to students, which is a transformative education marked by exceptional academics, high-impact teaching practices that engage students and support their success, and service and leadership experiences that prepare them for lives of meaning and purpose.

It’s a promise guided by Ignatius Loyola’s founding inspiration for the Society of Jesus, established nearly 500 years ago.

“Our forebears listened to the needs, wants and demands of the people in front of them and tried to respond in the most effective ways they could,” said Fordham University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, SJ, during a 2019 address at Canisius. “This is the practicality of the Jesuit approach: meet people where they are, bring them in through their doors and lead them out through ours.”

This is at the heart of a Canisius education and fundamental if the college is to continue developing the next generation of leaders for our world.