Are Christian Universities in Trouble?

Yes and no.

In terms of maintaining their overall numbers, they are doing well. As for bringing in students from the Churches of Christ — not so much.

Twelve universities from nine states make up Trace Hebert’s list of colleges associated with the Churches of Christ.

Hebert — associate provost for research and graduate studies and director of the doctoral program in education at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee — released an annual report on enrollment trends for presidents of these schools for a decade.

Before Ohio Valley University in Vienna, West Virginia closed last year, 13 institutions met its criteria. Some do not due to their specialized nature or lack of residential campuses, such as Heritage Christian University and Amridge University in Alabama. Additionally, Southwestern Christian College, a historically black college in Texas, chose not to participate in Hebert’s research.

Specifically, Hebert tracks the number of FTIACS – the first time among college students. The acronym, in plain English, is the number of new freshmen straight out of high school.

Churches of Christ enrollments have dropped dramatically

Regarding the number of FTIACS with backgrounds in the Churches of Christ, the trend shows a dramatic decline.

From 2000 to 2022, the number has fallen from 4,411 to 1,526, a decline of 65.4% in just over two decades and an average numerical decline of 131 per year. And the trend shows no signs of stopping.

That is, in 2000, two-thirds (66%) of incoming freshmen at universities associated with Churches of Christ came from within the fellowship, compared to less than one-third (28%) in 2022.

Chart from Hebert’s 2022 Enrollment Report

First registration in a college and registration in the FTIAC with the Church of Christ association between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2022.

However, this may not be primarily the fault of the institutions.

Geography plays a role. Universities inside the Bible Belt, Hebert said, have access to a larger population in Churches of Christ than schools like Rochester University in Michigan or York University in Nebraska — or the now defunct Ohio Valley.

But even in the South, the numbers are down.

“All are losing ground when it comes to Church of Christ populations,” Hebert said. The Christian Chronicle. “None of them are holding up. … No one is unscathed here.

The bigger problem, he added, is that this trend is a symptom of the general decline — and aging — of members of the Churches of Christ in the United States. Simply put, there are fewer and fewer 18-year-old graduates in the fraternity.

According to 21st Century Christian’s triennial survey, total membership has declined by approximately 13.4% since 2000, although data for recent years is incomplete due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the organization does not have data on age groups, Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study shows that the proportion of 18 to 29 year olds in churches of Christ is also declining.

Changing student demographics

The problem is not limited to the Churches of Christ.

Other faith-based institutions face similar challenges with dwindling student pools, Hebert said. Secular schools will also be in the near future, if they haven’t already.

“Over the next five to eight years, we’re going to see a decline in the number of 18-year-olds entering our facilities,” Hebert said. “And the reason for that is just pure census data. … All post-secondary institutions are preparing for the fact that we will be competing to attract fewer students in the years to come.

But there is an upside: overall, enrollment numbers for institutions associated with the Churches of Christ show a brighter outlook.

“What’s fascinating is if you look at the total enrollment numbers at these institutions, they’ve remained pretty healthy,” Hebert said.

In fact, total enrollment—undergraduates and graduates from all walks of life—in schools associated with the Churches of Christ has increased slightly since 2011, from 35,796 to 37,649. This is largely because some of them have managed to offset the decline in undergraduate enrollment with an increase in graduate enrolment.

At Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, for example, undergraduate enrollment has remained relatively flat from 2017 to 2021 – but over the same period, graduate enrollment has increased by 64%, from 4 106 to 6,738.

And Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, saw a nearly 23% increase in graduate enrollment last year, even as overall enrollment fell nearly 30% over the past decade to reach 4,804.

Overall, Hebert’s data showed a 38.1% increase in graduate enrollment at universities associated with the Churches of Christ from 2013 to 2022.

Short-term positive trends for Christian universities

One university in particular has managed to take advantage of market developments.

Abilene Christian University in Texas recorded record enrollment for the fifth consecutive year, with 5,731 students, up from 5,334 in 2021 and 4,371 in 2012. And this growth was not accidental.

“We made a commitment…in 2015 to expand and make the growth of our graduate programs a strategic priority, and the strategy around that had to do with how non-traditional adult learners access education. superior,” said ACU Vice President Stephen Johnson. The Chronicle.

From this commitment grew ACU Dallas – which Johnson leads – a second campus devoted primarily to online graduate programs. Undergraduate programs were then added and expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, enrollment in ACU Online’s 44 programs represents 37% of the total number of students, with an average growth of more than 20% each year.

A focus on online programs like these could be one of the keys to the future, although Hebert is not currently following these trends.

Elsewhere, total enrollment at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City increased from 2,216 to 2,607, including a 5% increase in undergraduate enrollment and a 65% increase in graduate enrollment.

Crowley’s Ridge College, in Paragould, Arkansas, also reported an increase in enrollment for the third consecutive year, with 201 students.

Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., saw record undergraduate enrollment for the fifth straight year, with 1,850 undergraduates – although its total enrollment remained virtually flat , at 2,283.

Notably, FHU has managed to reverse broader trends by increasing its undergraduate enrollment while successfully recruiting students from Churches of Christ – the majority of its undergraduate enrollment coming from the fraternity.

School administrators attribute this success to the leadership of President David Shannon, who took over in 2017, as well as his emphasis on close student-faculty relationships and commitment to the mission of the school. university.

“We know who we are and we claim it,” said Dave Clouse, vice president for community engagement.

At Harding University, new student enrollment rose to 920, up 6.2% from a year ago.

At York, although total enrollment fell slightly to 600, the number of new students increased by 10%.

Similarly, at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, total enrollment fell by 1%, but new undergraduate enrollment increased by more than 10% and new graduate enrollment by nearly 13%.

And for Lipscomb, this year marks the largest freshman class in school history, with more than 880 out of nearly 2,800 traditional undergraduates — another school record. The total number of registrations remains stable at around 4,650.

Other Christian schools – Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida; Lubbock Christian University in Texas; pepperdine; University of Rochester in Rochester Hills, Michigan; and Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas – did not report this year’s enrollment numbers to the the Chronicle.

Adapt by keeping the faith

The bottom line for universities associated with Churches of Christ, Hebert said, is this: “We are going to be challenged by the reduced number of high school graduates in the years to come – the next eight years and beyond.

“And we’re going to have to continue to supplant those losses with other types of enrollment – ​​with adult learners and graduate students – and if we don’t, we’ll have shrinking budgets and financial difficulties.”

But adapting doesn’t mean institutions associated with Churches of Christ have to abandon their Christian values ​​and traditions, ACU’s Johnson noted.

“The evolution of the market does not require us to abandon our historical and fundamental mission as institutions, and this is certainly not what is happening at the ACU. … It’s really about understanding the market and where (the people) are and being prepared to design the extension of our mission to meet people there, which I think is a very missionary.

In fact, ACU President Phil Schubert believes that denominational education helps Christian colleges stand out in a crowded field.

“We live in a society that is increasingly polarized on different ends of the spectrum, which I think has caused many families who value conservative Christian upbringing to be more willing to go to great lengths to secure that upbringing and recognize the differentiation that takes place in a faith-based educational path versus a secular one,” Schubert told the The Chronicle.

“We are very intentional in all of these graduate programs, even the online programs, to emphasize strong Christian values ​​and spiritual formation. … It is something that is an integral part of our identity.

Johnson added a word of optimism for members of the Churches of Christ concerned about the future of Christian education:

“I think there is opportunity, and I think there is hope for our institutions to not only support but to thrive in their mission and in their calling to serve students from the deep and rich history of our tradition.”

This article is republished with permission from The Christian Chronicle. Calvin Cockrell is a freelance digital media specialist, editor for The Christian Chronicle and editor for Religion Unplugged. He is also Minister of Young Adults for the Christ Church of North Tuscaloosa in Alabama.


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