Long Island's two Catholic colleges are growing at a record pace, hitting enrollment highs and adding degree programs at a time when many young people are pushing back against organized religion and church membership is falling.
Molloy College and St. Joseph's College attribute their progress in no small part to their unwavering commitment to Catholic values, coupled with tuition costs that are lower than many other small liberal arts colleges, including their Catholic competitors.
Evidence that their strategies are paying off is the record enrollments that both schools expect this fall.
Molloy is ready to welcome nearly 5,000 students, more than double the number two decades ago. The 5,300 students headed for St. Joseph's will equal the high set in 2007, before the financial crisis.
The students at each college are very different, by design.
St. Joseph's, for example, targets what educators call commuter students — they bike, walk, ride the bus or drive to classes in Patchogue.
Rockville Centre-based Molloy, on the other hand, is a commuter school that is expanding by going after the more traditional student — the one who wants to live away from home, in college-owned housing. Today, three dormitories stand on a campus that had none.
Diana Becker started taking classes at St. Joseph's last year. She decided to go back to school for a bachelor's degree in nursing after years of working as a registered nurse.
For her, St. Joseph's is the right fit for her budget, her lifestyle and her faith.
"It’s a very spiritual campus and they cater to everyone," said Becker, who is Catholic. "Whatever your faith or denomination is, you feel like you fit."
Keeping the doors open
Breaking down the numbers in Catholic higher education nationwide makes the success of Molloy and St. Joseph's even more impressive, experts said.
For the past five decades, the number of students has been steadily increasing while the number of colleges and universities has been steadily decreasing, statistics show.
Enrollment nearly doubled, from roughly 411,000 in 1970 to about 769,650 last year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic think tank based at Georgetown University.
The beneficiaries have been mostly the bigger schools: Notre Dame, Georgetown and nearby Fordham in the Bronx and St. John's in Queens.
St. John’s University, for example, will have a near-record freshman class of 3,100 in September — the largest of any Catholic college or university in the nation. And Fordham University received a record 47,880 applications for about 2,300 spots for this fall.
“The rise in enrollment overall of students at Catholic colleges is incredible, and it is testament to the fact that we do remain a dynamic service-oriented sector,” said Paula Moore of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
In those same 50 years, however, the number of colleges and universities fell by a fifth, from 279 to 226.
Most of the schools that closed were smaller, like Molloy and St. Joseph's. Just weeks ago, the College of New Rochelle held its final commencement. The closing was historic — the college was New York's first Catholic women's college, founded in 1904.
But Molloy and St. Joseph's have managed to survive, even thrive, through recessions, rising costs, a shrinking pool of college-age students and shifting attitudes about religion.
The schools' success is what higher education expert Emily Morgese describes as impressive.
“I think it is great they are continuing to do well and have carved out a niche on Long Island,” said Morgese, of the Albany-based Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York. The colleges “know how to adapt and make changes to meet demand.”
The kind of student they go after may be different, but Molloy and St. Joseph's are using a few of the same tactics to fill their classrooms.
Perhaps, the most important is tuition costs. Last school year, tuition and fees ran $27,230 a year at St. Joseph's. At Molloy, the annual figure was $30,270.
Nationwide, tuition and fees at Catholic colleges and universities was $31,490 for 2016-17, the latest academic year that the Moore's group has data for. The average tuition and fees at other private institutions was $33,480.
“There are very few that can match our tuition,” said Donald Boomgaarden, who became president of St. Joseph's in 2017. The school also has a campus in Brooklyn.
“There are more and more families saying that, ‘Why do that?’” said Boomgaarden, referring to the high costs of tuition, room and board. “Why send my student off when they can graduate without debt?”
Besides keeping a handle on tuition, both schools have focused on certain things to stay healthy.
Molloy created a Manhattan-based theater program and added 25 master's degree and three doctoral programs. More than 1,300 students are enrolled in the graduate programs.
“I think we are one of the greatest success stories in higher education, certainly in the region and maybe in the country,” said Edward Thompson, Molloy’s vice president for advancement.
The college also has focused on business and nursing. The fields are naturals because both health care and financial services are hot industries on Long Island, according to Molloy officials.
And capital campaigns in the last five years have raised enough money to finance a new nursing building and a new student center.
Like Molloy, St. Joseph's added graduate programs and focused on nursing.
One big area of growth for the college is online education, what Boomgaarden calls a "kind of third campus."
The number of online students has jumped from 64 to 400 since the program started in 2015. Today, the online-only degree programs total 18.
“When I look at the landscape," Boomgaarden said, "I feel really optimistic about the future of the college.”
College with a 'larger purpose'
Molloy and St. Joseph's leave no doubt that they are grounded in Catholicism, but they put the emphasis on social teaching and not doctrine.
"We have always made it clear that we are a Catholic institution and we promote a certain kind of value system," said Molloy president Drew Bogner, who is leaving his post next year after two decades.
"Higher education has become increasingly transactional … we pay your tuition and then you help us get a degree and a job," he said. "For us, that is important as well. But for us we have a much larger purpose for our existence. We expect students to become an individual who can make a difference in the world."
The talk at the colleges is about things like service to others.
"There is a desire out there, from parents and from young people, to go to a school where people talk openly about things like character, ethics, spiritual values," Boomgaarden said. "And it’s attractive to people of all faiths."
Levittown resident Mary Andrews picked Molloy because she wanted two things: a top-notch nursing program and a college with a Catholic identity.
“I wanted to go to a school that could … reflect my spirit and my devotion to my faith," the 19-year-old Andrews said, "somewhere where I felt comfortable sharing that with others.”