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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Rivier upgrades its gateways to help it grow, even as higher education faces uncertain financial future

NASHUA – The half-century-old chapel on Rivier University’s campus is in the midst of a major renovation, part of almost $4 million worth of improvements to the school’s appearance and function along South Main Street.

And it’s another case of the school evolving despite some difficult times. ...

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NASHUA – The half-century-old chapel on Rivier University’s campus is in the midst of a major renovation, part of almost $4 million worth of improvements to the school’s appearance and function along South Main Street.

And it’s another case of the school evolving despite some difficult times.

“Rivier was founded during the height of the Great Depression. … Can you imagine what it took to start a college in 1933?” said Sister Paula Marie Buley, president of the Catholic university. “We moved to Nashua during World War II, not an easy time.

“Rivier has a great history of being able to adapt to the times, and these projects are investments in the growth of the university.”

Growth isn’t an obvious choice for higher education at the moment. The number of high school graduates is stagnating, but operating costs aren’t; the jump in student debt has created backlash among families unwilling to take on more debt; and online courses pose what some say is a threat to the entire idea of classroom education.

The result is an increasing financial pressure, particularly on private colleges and universities.

The most visible signs of this in New Hampshire were the 2012 closure of Chester College in central New Hampshire after 45 years and the 2009 purchase of Nashua’s Daniel Webster College by ITT Educational Services, a sale spurred by years of red ink while the school was independent.

Nationwide, there has been a reduction in the number of students for the first time in decades – spring 2013 enrollments were 2.3 percent lower than a year earlier, according to the National Student Clearinghouse – and news of cutbacks at many small colleges, including a Minnesota state college that eliminated the departments of English, physics and history.

But no cutbacks are coming to Rivier, Buley said.

Enrollment has stayed roughly level at around 2,300, and nursing- or teaching-related degrees of various levels remain a strong point, reflecting its founding by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary as a female-only college emphasizing those fields.

Rivier became coeducational in 1991, and in recent years its focus has shifted more toward post-bachelor’s degree education, reflected in an expansion of doctoral programs, including the state’s first doctorate in counseling psychology. Only about two-thirds of student enrollment is now composed of undergraduates.

Rivier has also expanded its marketing in a push to enroll foreign students to compensate for the dwindling supply of New England teens and to increase the diversity of the student body.

This was part of the reason for the 2012 name change from college to university. Overseas, the word “college” often means a prep school rather than a university.

“Nashua is our home –
the world is our classroom,” Buley said.

Rivier has also been increasing the number of online classes, such as its RN to BSN nursing program, which is popular, Buley said.

“A number of our business programs are hybrid –
partly online,” she said.

As at most colleges, tuition has been climbing for years. It hit $26,905 last year, although the cost to the average undergraduate is reduced about 36 percent by aid and other factors, as reflected in the school’s discount rate, Buley said.

“That is based a good bit on family need,” she said.

This is the context for what the school is calling the Gateway Projects: eight improvements – including the renovation of the chapel, one of the first buildings seen after entering the college from Main Street –
that will be done over the next three to five years, a schedule partly dictated by donations and financing.

While not a massive financial investment by Rivier standards – the university’s annual operating budget is about $35 million, Buley said – the $4 million worth of work will be noticeable, both to people living and working on campus and to the rest of the city.

The most obvious to passersby will be a redesign of the school’s entrance, adding granite gateways and landscaping where Main Street and Daniel Webster Highway converge at a roundabout. This may include moving the Monument to Memory statue, often called the “giant clothespin,” in the center of the circle, although that’s a decision for the city.

The chapel project, part of a “strategic goal of enhancing sacred spaces,” will give the building a new exterior on roughly the same footprint, as well as a complete renovation of the interior. It should be finished by spring.

Another major project will be the creation of a Heritage Plaza, near the campus quad across the street from Madeleine Hall. Buley said this would give the 70-acre campus and its 44 buildings a visual center point that is currently lacking, to an extent. The university wants Heritage Plaza completed by August 2015, when Rivier will host an international meeting of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, its governing body.

Other Gateway Projects include renovations to the sunken garden behind Madeleine Hall, a popular study spot, as well as improving access and entrance to that building.

Madeleine Hall was the first building acquired by Rivier when it moved from Hudson, and was once an inn and stagecoach stop. It now holds various administrative functions – including the all-important admissions office.

Also on the agenda are improvements to the campus quad, which is bordered by the Dion Center, as well as the major residence halls.

Buley said the work was being covered by donations, and partly by a reserve for capital projects.

“Moneys to renovate the chapel have been saved since 1963, when the sisters put away a fund for the renovation,” she said.

Other major capital projects in recent years have been less visible to the outside community, including the 2008 renovations of Regina Library and the refurbishment of the dining hall that opened in September.

The next big construction project on the campus master plan will be an expansion of the Mendel Hall science building, on the corner of Clement and Main streets, although that isn’t yet scheduled, Buley said.

Because, she added, even when Rivier University is improving facilities, it doesn’t go overboard.

“You don’t see a rock-climbing wall at Rivier,” she said.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).