BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Elliot Batista was terrified of going off to college. So he started early in the summer, got used to his new surroundings and a new routine at his own pace.

At the age of 21, Sonti Chandler might be considered an older freshman at other schools — out of place.

But the fact both are at ease and succeeding at Villa Maria College is the reason the private campus in Cheektowaga is welcoming its largest freshman class in 25 years, seeing its largest percentage of students returning and bucking local and national trends of slumping enrollment: its individual attention — from college finances to tutoring to mental health support — for each of its 550 students.

While many institutions are shrinking, Villa is growing, experiencing a 30 percent jump over last year’s incoming class. 

“The community colleges frankly have been getting battered with less students,” said Dr. Matthew Giordano, who’s been at Villa’s helm for the past five years, merging his own vision of higher education with that of the school’s Felician founding.

“Things like respect for human dignity and solidarity with those in need and compassion, and those infuse everything that we do here,” he said.

But they also have to stand out among a crowded field of choices for prospective students.

“It’s no secret that the region is pretty saturated with colleges. There are a lot of options for students in this region. Every small school is going to say some similar things,” Giordano said. “They’re all going to say that it’s like a family atmosphere and that we put our students first and that we have small classrooms so that you get a lot of individual attention. Those things are very true, but it’s a matter of how you deliver on those promises.”

Since 2013, community colleges and smaller two- and four-year institutions have faced steep enrollment declines in many parts of the country. (Areas like the southwest and California, notwithstanding.) The reasons vary by region, and include population shifts and decline or traditionally low-paying jobs and trades offering large incentives to join the workforce.

The pandemic accelerated the problems across the country and in Western New York, where some schools could not recover.

Medialle University closed Aug. 31 after failing to merge with Trocaire College, citing financial instability, declining enrollment and outstanding liabilities. Many larger SUNY schools — which typically weather enrollment dips with less impact — are operating in the red. Buffalo State and Fredonia started the year tens of millions of dollars in the hole. Erie Community College cut its staff by nearly 200 positions and reduced the size of its south campus footprint.

“That’s what makes us really excited is we’re defying that trend,” Giordano said. “And we feel like we’re doing something very very different.”

The proof is hard to miss at Villa, especially for students like Sonti, whose chance at education beyond high school faded with the pandemic.

“When COVID hit, I thought that I would never go back to school,” she said. “I was worried about money, I was worried about my family. And then Villa Maria made me feel like I belong here.”

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Dave Greber is an award-winning anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2015. See more of his work here.