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Enrollment outlook: It’s complicated

For Christian universities, latest figures reflect positive and negative trends.

Are Christian universities in trouble?

Yes — and no.

In terms of keeping their overall numbers up, they’re doing OK. In terms of bringing in students from Churches of Christ — not so much.

Trace Hebert

Trace Hebert

Twelve universities from nine states make up Trace Hebert’s list of higher education institutions associated with Churches of Christ.

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

Prior to the closing of Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., last year, 13 institutions met his criteria. Some don’t because of their specialized nature or lack of residential campus — like Heritage Christian University and Amridge University in Alabama. Additionally, Southwestern Christian College, a historically Black college in Texas, has chosen not to participate in Hebert’s research.

Specifically, Hebert tracks the number of FTIACS — first time in any college students. The acronym, put plainly, is the number of new freshmen coming straight out of high school.

Enrollment from Churches of Christ down dramatically

When it comes to the number of FTIACS with backgrounds in Churches of Christ, the trend shows a dramatic decline.

From 2000 to 2022, the number fell from 4,411 to 1,526 — a 65.4 percent drop in a little over two decades and an average numerical decline of 131 per year. And the trend shows no signs of stopping.

Put a different way, in 2000, two-thirds (66 percent) of new freshmen at universities associated with Churches of Christ came from within the fellowship compared to less than one-third (28 percent) in 2022.

First time in any college enrollment and FTIAC enrollment with Church of Christ association between fall 2000 and fall 2022.

First time in any college enrollment and FTIAC enrollment with Church of Christ association between fall 2000 and fall 2022.

That may not be primarily the fault of the institutions, however.

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

But even in the South, numbers are declining.

“All of them are losing ground when it comes to Church of Christ populations,” Hebert told The Christian Chronicle. “None of them are holding their own. … No one’s unscathed here.”

Related: Christian universities face ‘extremely difficult’ recruiting outlook

The bigger issue, he added, is that this trend is a symptom of the overall decline in — and aging of — membership of Churches of Christ in the U.S. Simply put, there are fewer and fewer 18-year-old graduates in the fellowship.

According to 21st Century Christian’s tri-annual survey, overall membership has fallen by about 13.4 percent since 2000, though data from the last few years is incomplete because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the organization doesn’t have data on age groups, Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study shows the proportion of 18- to 29-year-olds in Churches of Christ is also shrinking.

Shifting student demographics

The problem isn’t limited to Churches of Christ.

Other faith-based institutions face similar difficulties with declining student pools, Hebert said. Secular schools will in the near future, too, if they aren’t already.

“In the next five to eight years, we’re going to see a drop in the number of 18-year-olds coming into our institutions,” Hebert said. “And the reason is just pure census data. … All the post-secondary institutions are bracing for the fact we’re going to be competing for fewer students in the years to come.”

Harding University students attend an introduction session.

Harding University experienced a nearly 23 percent rise in graduate enrollment last year.

But there’s an upside: Overall, enrollment numbers for institutions associated with Churches of Christ show a brighter outlook.

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

In fact, the total enrollment — undergraduate and graduate students of any background — at schools associated with Churches of Christ has slightly increased since 2011, from 35,796 to 37,649. That’s largely because some of them have managed to offset falling undergraduate numbers with increasing graduate enrollment.

Related: Christian universities feeling the pinch as Churches of Christ shrink

At Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., for example, undergraduate enrollment remained relatively steady from 2017 to 2021 — but in that same period, graduate enrollment grew by 64 percent, from 4,106 to 6,738.

And Harding University in Searcy, Ark., boasted a nearly 23 percent rise in graduate enrollment last year, even as overall enrollment is down nearly 30 percent over the past decade to 4,804.

In the aggregate, Hebert’s data showed a 38.1 percent increase in graduate enrollment for universities associated with Churches of Christ from 2013 to 2022.

Positive short-term trends for Christian universities

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

Abilene Christian University in Texas reported a record enrollment for the fifth consecutive year, with 5,731 students — up from 5,334 in 2021 and 4,371 in 2012. And that growth hasn’t been by accident.

“We made a commitment … in 2015 to expand and make a strategic priority the growth of our graduate programs, and the strategy around that had to do with the way nontraditional adult learners were accessing graduate education,” ACU Vice President Stephen Johnson told the Chronicle.

Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson

Out of that commitment came ACU Dallas — which Johnson heads — a second campus devoted primarily to online graduate programs. Undergraduate programs were later added and expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, enrollment in ACU Online’s 44 programs accounts for 37 percent of the total student body, with an average growth of more than 20 percent each year.

An emphasis in online programs like these may be one of the keys to the future, though Hebert currently does not track those trends.

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

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

Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., reported a record-breaking undergraduate enrollment for the fifth consecutive year, with 1,850 undergraduate students — though its total enrollment has remained mostly steady, at 2,283.

Notably, FHU has managed to buck the larger trends by growing its undergraduate enrollment while remaining successful in recruiting students from Churches of Christ — with a majority of its undergraduate enrollment coming from within the fellowship.

Freed-Hardeman University reported a record-breaking undergraduate enrollment for the fifth consecutive year.

Freed-Hardeman University reported a record-breaking undergraduate enrollment for the fifth consecutive year.

School administrators attribute that success to the leadership of President David Shannon, who took over in 2017, as well as an emphasis on close relationships among students and faculty and a commitment to the university’s mission.

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

At Harding University, new student enrollment grew to 920, up 6.2 percent from last year.

At York, though total enrollment has dipped slightly to 600, the number of new students grew by 10 percent.

Likewise, at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., total enrollment fell by 1 percent, but new undergraduate enrollment is up by more than 10 percent and new graduate enrollment by nearly 13 percent.

And for Lipscomb, this year marks the largest freshman class in school history, at more than 880 out of nearly 2,800 traditional undergraduate students — another school record. Total enrollment remains steady at around 4,650.

Other Christian schools — Florida College in Temple Terrace, Fla.; Lubbock Christian University in Texas; Pepperdine; Rochester University in Rochester Hills, Mich.; and Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas — have not reported this year’s enrollment numbers to the Chronicle.

Crowley’s Ridge College enrollment increased to 201 students this year.

Crowley’s Ridge College enrollment increased to 201 students this year.

Adapting while keeping the faith

The bottom line for universities associated with Churches of Christ, Hebert said, is this: “We’re going to be challenged by the shrinking pool of high school graduates in the years to come — the next eight-plus years.

“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 fail to do that, we’re going to have shrinking budgets and financial difficulties.”

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

“The shifting marketplace does not require us to abandon our historic and core mission as institutions, and that’s certainly not what’s happening at ACU. … It really is about understanding the marketplace and where (people) are and being willing to design the extension of our mission to meet people in that place, which I think is a very missional move.”

Phil Schubert

Phil Schubert

In fact, ACU President Phil Schubert believes faith-based education helps Christian colleges stand out in a crowded field.

“We’re living in a society that’s increasingly polarized on different ends of the spectrum, which I think has caused a lot of families who value Christian conservative education to be more willing to go to great lengths to secure that education and recognize the differentiation that takes place in a faith-based educational journey versus one that’s secular,” Schubert told the Chronicle.

“We’re very intentional in all of those graduate programs, even the online programs, to have a major focus on strong Christian values and spiritual formation. … That is something that’s a foundational part of our identity.”

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

“I do think there is opportunity, and I think there’s hope for our institutions to not only sustain but to flourish in their mission and in their calling to serve students out of the deep and rich history of our tradition.”

Filed under: Christian education Christian universities Church decline National News Oklahoma Christian College Partners Top Stories Trace Hebert

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