Christian universities feeling the pinch as Churches of Christ shrink
Since today’s college freshmen were infants, roughly 1,200 Churches of…
OKLAHOMA CITY — Brynn Walker always thought she’d attend a large state university.
But this fall, the 18-year-old from Fort Smith, Ark., packed up and trekked west on Interstate 40 to enroll at 2,300-student Oklahoma Christian University.
“The introvert in me loved the smaller campus. The extrovert in me loved how close it was to a big city,” Walker said of the far north Oklahoma City campus, less than 15 miles from the downtown arena of the NBA’s Thunder.
Across the U.S., the number of high school graduates who identify with Churches of Christ and choose to attend one of 14 universities associated with the fellowship has hit a new low.
Walker was one of 2,004 freshmen who fit that profile in fall 2018 — down 8 percent from 2,177 in fall 2017, according to an annual survey by Trace S. Hebert, a higher education researcher at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
One of the major factors in Walker’s unexpected decision: a “college visit” road trip organized by Rick Odell, youth and family minister for the West-Ark Church of Christ in her hometown, near the Oklahoma state line.
“Long story short, I believe that my personal reason for going to OC was a combination of me wanting something completely new, Rick being a little pushy in the most loving way possible and the loudest whisper from God to pursue him above everything else,” Walker said.
Each year, Odell takes high school juniors and seniors on a four-state journey to visit Lipscomb; Harding University in Searcy, Ark.; Oklahoma Christian; Lubbock Christian University in Texas; and Abilene Christian University in Texas.
That’s not to mention the West-Ark church’s separate yearly expedition to the Soul Quest summer camp at York College in Nebraska.
Odell, a 1984 graduate of Oklahoma Christian, believes in Christian higher education.
It’s not, he said, that he discounts the outstanding campus ministries that nurture souls at some state universities.
Rather, it’s that he has witnessed the value of a faith-based learning environment in helping many young people grow as disciples.
First, though, he must persuade potential students to set foot on a Christian university campus.
“If you get them on campus,” Odell said, “then kids can see themselves there.”
Hebert’s survey includes 14 U.S. universities that are regionally accredited, serve traditional-age undergraduate residential students and are associated with Churches of Christ.
In the 21st century, those universities have seen a 55 percent overall decline in the total number of first-time freshmen who give their religious affiliation as “Church of Christ.”
In fall 2000, 4,411 such students represented 66 percent of the 6,643 total first-time freshmen at those institutions.
Contrast those figures with fall 2018: The 2,004 such students comprised 38 percent of 5,234 total first-time freshmen.
The downward trend coincides with a general membership decline in Churches of Christ: The total number of men, women and children in U.S. pews has shrunk by more than 200,000 — down from 1,645,645 in 2000 to 1,442,285 in the latest online estimate — according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
“The 2018 data presents an extremely difficult picture for any president or chief recruitment officer whose desire is to maintain an effective recruitment strategy from this religious affiliation,” Hebert wrote in a report to Christian university presidents.
Universities associated with Churches of Christ at one time benefitted from “brand loyalty” from congregations, church leaders and alumni who’d encourage young people to go to a university associated with the fellowship, Hebert pointed out.
But that has changed, he told the presidents: “The C-of-C enrollment data revealing declining numbers of C-of-C enrollees in affiliated institutions suggests that the era of brand loyalty has substantively diminished from what it once was.”
Christian university presidents supply the religious affiliation data to Hebert on the condition that he can release aggregate figures but not individual institutions’ numbers.
A separate Christian Chronicle survey found declines in freshman enrollment — some steep — this school year at most universities associated with Churches of Christ.
Freshman enrollment fell 38 percent at Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., 31 percent at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Mich., 20 percent at Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould, Ark., 18 percent at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., and 16 percent at York.
“Leadership changes at the university had an impact on enrollment,” said Lindsay Cole, director of student services at Ohio Valley, where the proportion of freshmen who identify with Churches of Christ fell to 17 percent in fall 2018, down from 27 percent in fall 2017.
“Our Christian colleges and universities have to promote their academic prowess in a way that sets them in a position of market strength among their competitors.”
“Additionally, higher education attendance was down regionally,” Cole added. “The university is seeking to strengthen our brand to increase enrollment for the upcoming fall 2019 semester.”
Multiple factors influence enrollment trends, from higher education competition to concerns about student debt to marginalization of the need for a college degree, said Keith Mock, Faulkner’s vice president for enrollment management.
“The undeniable focus for families and prospective students is on academics and jobs after graduating,” Mock said. “Our Christian colleges and universities have to promote their academic prowess in a way that sets them in a position of market strength among their competitors.”
Faulkner’s percentage of on-campus students from Churches of Christ has remained stable in recent years, Mock said, making up an average of 42 percent of that population.
“The overall percentage of freshman Church of Christ students enrolling this fall is about 5 percent lower than last year, so we are seeing that we are appealing to a more religiously diverse population,” he said, declining to give specific figures for those years.
Officials with Rochester, Crowley’s Ridge and York declined to comment on enrollment trends.
Elsewhere, freshman enrollment declined 12 percent at Oklahoma Christian, 7 percent at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., 6 percent at Harding, 5 percent at Lubbock Christian, 5 percent at Abilene Christian and 2 percent at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
“Our environment on campus and commitment to our mission and Church of Christ heritage have certainly influenced our high percentage of Church of Christ students.”
Two of those universities — Freed-Hardeman and Harding — said they actually increased their proportion of students who identify with Churches of Christ. That figure rose to 85 percent at Freed-Hardeman, up from 80 percent a year ago. At Harding, it climbed to 72 percent, up from 70 percent a year ago.
“Our environment on campus and commitment to our mission and Church of Christ heritage have certainly influenced our high percentage of Church of Christ students,” said Dave Clouse, Freed-Hardeman’s vice president for community engagement.
Jana Rucker, Harding’s vice president for university communications and enrollment, said: “Certainly, the overall trends in higher ed enrollment impacted Harding, as they did many other schools among and outside our sister schools.”
But Rucker added: “I strongly believe we can counter the trends by clearly communicating the benefits of a Christian education that come with our academic strength. My prayer is that our congregations and families will see our value and encourage their high school students to choose a Christian school.”
At Lubbock Christian, Warren McNeill, vice president for public relations and marketing, said he’s optimistic about the future despite “a weakening of the once widely held consensus about the value of a college degree.”
“We have witnessed over time a downward trend of students coming to us from Churches of Christ,” McNeill said. “And more specifically, we are increasingly challenged to recruit students who identify with the Churches of Christ in an era when rural churches are declining and aging. As a Christ-centered, academic community of learners, we remain committed to our fellowship and its young people.”
Tamara Long, vice president for enrollment management at Abilene Christian, noted that expanded graduate and professional programs have helped that university increase overall enrollment four years in a row.
As for the decline in the number of students who identify with Churches of Christ, she said, “Data is challenging to track, as a number of congregations in our fellowship have changed their name, which affects how students self-identify their religious affiliation. A growing number are choosing ‘Christian’ or ‘non-denominational’ rather than ‘Church of Christ.’”
Krissy Collins, dean of enrollment management at Pepperdine, said: “While the decline in the size and number of Churches of Christ nationwide makes the recruitment process more difficult, we are encouraged by the quality of Church of Christ students who enroll at Pepperdine. … We remain confident that our Church of Christ students play a critical and valuable role in our diverse campus community.”
Risa Forrester, Oklahoma Christian’s chief communications officer, attributed a bump in freshman enrollment last year to a special circumstance: the launch of an intercollegiate swimming program.
“This year’s number was closer to our typical average freshman number,” Forrester said.
A declining number of international students, particularly at the graduate level, also contributed to Oklahoma Christian’s overall enrollment decline, she said. International student enrollment is down across the board at U.S. universities, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Lipscomb officials declined to comment on its 4 percent increase in freshman enrollment.
Florida College in Temple Terrace, Fla., draws a significant portion of its student body from non-institutional Churches of Christ.
Its 28 percent increase in first-time freshmen was attributed to special recruitment efforts at 22 Christian summer camps across the nation.
Florida College’s overall enrollment remained flat.
“We are finding that the cost of attendance and a resistance to taking out student loans are continuing to be a major factor in college choice,” said Paul J. Casebolt, Florida College’s director of admissions and retention services. “These factors have led us to explore other options for institutional aid.”
Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, did not respond to requests for enrollment data.
At the West-Ark church, Odell estimates that 80 percent of the youth group choose a Christian university.
“It would probably be about 10 percent if we didn’t take them on that trip,” he said.
Jordon and Meredith Brown said their daughter, Sydney, always had said she wouldn’t attend a Christian college.
But then she joined the “college visit” road trip and fell in love with Lipscomb and Abilene Christian, her mother said.
Eventually, she chose Abilene Christian.
“That trip completely changed her mind about a Christian university, and I’m so thankful she had the opportunity to go,” Meredith Brown said. “I wanted her to go to a Christian college because I don’t know if her faith would have survived a state school.”
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