As they cut costs, two Miami-Dade Catholic universities talked merger. Now, that’s off

The gated west entrance of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens Wednesday, March 15, 2017.
The gated west entrance of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens Wednesday, March 15, 2017.

South Florida’s two Catholic universities spent most of 2017 brainstorming ways for the small privates colleges to cooperate, partner or even merge.

Six months later, the task force has been dissolved, and a merger is off the table for Barry University and St. Thomas University.

“We cannot proceed as we had hoped to,” the religious sponsors of both schools wrote in an Oct. 26 letter announcing the decision.

Msgr. Franklyn Casale, the president of St. Thomas University, said the process would have involved re-accrediting the schools under a new charter, which would have affected both athletics and fundraising.

“It was too intricate,” he said.

Any future collaborations — and there could be a number of them, he said — will be discussed between Barry University’s president and Casale’s replacement after he retires in January.

Although the universities insist that they were considering a partnership due to a directive issued by their religious sponsors and not based on their financial status, both colleges are facing the same market forces buffeting all small, private schools.

The pot of students to choose from is growing smaller and the competition for their tuition dollars is fiercer. Online degrees and improved community college programs are taking more of the market. To compensate, colleges are tightening their belts.

Earlier in the year, Barry, based in Miami Shores, was looking at a nearly $9 million projected budget gap. The university eliminated at least 25 staff jobs, closed the school’s Davie campus and began a hiring freeze. The gap has since been closed, Barry said.

At St. Thomas, headquartered in Miami Gardens, there were about two dozen “voluntary separation agreements” with faculty members, and the school left some positions unfilled, Casale said.

The Barry University sign on Northeast Second Avenue in Miami Shores. PATRICK FARRELL

These types of schools depend heavily on enrollment, which had dropped in recent years but rose in 2016 at both universities.

In particular, Barry, with an undergraduate population of more then 3,500 students, depends on tuition for about 90 percent of its funding, three times higher than the national average for private colleges.

This year, the school’s full-time freshman enrollment jumped by 128. St. Thomas, with an undergraduate population of under 3,000 students, enrolled an additional 118 full-time freshmen in 2017.

St. Thomas attributes the enrollment growth to an “enormous number of dollars” invested in new enrollment technology and staff. The school almost doubled the number of Catholic high school students by strengthening partnerships with the schools.

To keep up with the market, St. Thomas has added more than a dozen new degrees in recent years, including one in cybersecurity. The university upped its financial aid and scholarship options and is focusing more on retention.

“We’ve pretty much got our finances in hand,” Casale said.

Barry is diversifying its revenue with new online and distance learning courses through an alliance with Academic Partnerships, a leading online provider. The university’s new (and first ever) extended learning associate vice provost, Andrea Keener, spearheads that movement, which enrolls an additional 2,300 students.

Despite challenges at both the local and national level, the leaders of each school said they’re determined to provide a high-quality Catholic education to South Florida.

Sister Linda Bevilaqua, Barry University’s president, said in a statement that the outlook is bright at her school, with enrollment exceeding expectations, an expansion of degree offerings and “as always,” a balanced budget.

“Even though the exploratory process did not result in a strategic alliance with St. Thomas University, Barry University is well-positioned and committed to fulfilling all of the characteristics of Catholic higher education in the Dominican tradition as we have for the last 78 years,” she wrote.

“We had a slowdown, but never a stop in momentum,” Casale said. “And now we’re going full speed ahead.”