Learning that the university she was about to lead faced a deficit equal to nearly 10 percent of its operating budget, Colleen M. Hanycz knew it was time for "crisis triage."
Hanycz, who became president of La Salle University in July, oversaw 23 layoffs, about the same number of buyouts of longtime employees, a major reduction in employee retirement contributions, and other belt-tightening - enough to save about $10 million. Not quite enough to close the hole.
Now, Hanycz is interested in leading La Salle in a less frantic and more comprehensive look at every program - academic and nonacademic - to determine which should be maintained, upgraded, added, or jettisoned.
"I don't know of an institution that should not do this," said Robert C. Dickeson, a former college president turned consultant whom La Salle has hired to discuss the possibility of such a review with its faculty and staff.
Hanycz said the 3,164-student La Salle will decide soon whether to embark on the review, similar to one Dickeson helped her with at her former school, Brescia University College in Ontario.
Many small private universities feel increasingly pressured as they compete for fewer high school graduates. In Pennsylvania, the number of graduates is projected to fall through 2019.
Some Catholic colleges - La Salle is one of about a dozen in the region - have been particularly hard hit, as Catholic parishes and schools close or consolidate. In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, enrollment at the 17 high schools last year was 13,565, down 2,937, or 18 percent, from 2010-11.
Also pinched this year is St. Joseph's University, which expects an undergraduate enrollment of 4,557, 75 fewer than last year. Officials expect cuts, including layoffs, this fall.
"We could be looking at kind of a new normal for Catholic higher education," St. Joseph's spokesman Joe Lunardi said of the freshman class size, "in which case, it is probably more important than ever to be healthy, stay healthy, and to market yourselves as a mission-centered alternative."
Both La Salle and St. Joseph's this summer welcomed the first lay presidents in their 150-year-plus histories. La Salle also has a new board chair and St. Joseph's, which wrestled last year with enrollment strategy and tight finances, has seen large turnover in cabinet posts.
Through a variety of approaches, several other Catholic colleges report they have held enrollment steady, or even raised it a bit over the last five years. Others have seen drops.
"A lot of schools are really struggling with how to balance," said Robert Reese, vice president for enrollment management at Cabrini College. "How do you deliver a quality education at an affordable price?"
Cabrini, a small private college in Radnor, cut tuition by 12.5 percent in 2012 and has fulfilled a commitment to keep its price tag below $30,000 until 2015. Overall undergraduate enrollment is down less than 3 percent from 2010. But last year, the college saw its largest incoming class in six years, with another boost this year, Reese said.
Cabrini's board will hold a retreat soon to debate a longer-term tuition strategy. "I think all options are on the table," Reese said.
College staff also have begun visiting high schools around the world named after St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
"When our president and provost went on a trip to Argentina this summer, there were a number of students who really expressed interest in coming and studying here," Reese said. "So I think we'll start to see that snowball."
Chestnut Hill College has maintained virtually the same undergraduate enrollment as 2010 by adding majors and minors and sports teams, said Sister Carol Jean Vale, its president. Students starting this fall can earn a bachelor of arts in music and play sprint football.
"In this time when there is so much competition for students, if we can remain stable, then we'll be able to move forward when the situation changes a bit," she said.
The college also has begun recruiting from hundreds of Catholic and independent high schools in the suburbs of large East Coast cities. The tactic has attracted 40 new students, she said.
Gwynedd Mercy, which converted from a college to a university in 2013, added degree programs, which helped enrollment, said Alyssa Onisick, spokeswoman for the Gwynedd Valley school.
Neumann University enrolled 425 freshmen this fall, down from 573 in 2011, but its overall enrollment has been stable, spokesman Steve Bell said. The Aston university has made up the difference by retaining more students, attracting transfers, and increasing adult undergraduates, Bell said.
Catholic colleges hope to build momentum with Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia this month. La Salle is hosting an international mayor's forum the week of his visit.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese also plans to launch a campaign this month that could help boost high school enrollment and help colleges, too, said Nick Regina, interim superintendent for secondary schools. The archdiocese projects a flat number, possibly even a slight increase, in high school students this year, which would be the first bump in more than a decade.
At La Salle, where freshman enrollment fell from 867 last year to 725 this fall, some faculty are concerned about what the possible review could bring.
The review, said a faculty member who asked not to be named, could weed out some poor programs that should have been ended. But such a "technocratic" approach, where programs are assigned point values and ranked, may miss a larger purpose.
Hanycz said the review did not result in faculty layoffs at Brescia, but programs were restructured.
Colleges typically save between 2 percent and 10 percent of their operating budget over two years by prioritizing programs, said Dickeson, former president of the University of Northern Colorado. Programs that meet the university's mission and do well survive. Those under-enrolled could be bolstered if key to the mission, or might be eliminated, Dickeson said.
"I believe, however painful the changes are, that they will benefit La Salle," said Gerald Ballough, a biology professor, who said he supports Hanycz.
For her part, Hanycz said she would work to better sell La Salle, where her son, Erik, is a freshman education major.
"If anything, I think La Salle has not told its story well," she said. "It's a very modest institution. . . . There's just not the luxury of that kind of modesty right now."
La Salle is surrounded by some stable neighborhoods, but also by some gritty ones, which can complicate recruitment.
"My mom wasn't too happy about the area here," said Amanda Rowlands, 20, a sophomore psychology major from Allentown. "But, she said, 'It's a Catholic school. Why not?' "
For Rowlands, who like nearly 70 percent of La Salle students is Catholic, things have worked out well.
"I love it here," she said. "When I need help, they're just there right away."