(405) 425-5070

Trends in freshman enrollment

Church of Christ universities drawing fewer students from within fellowship.

A decade ago, a majority of freshmen at Rochester College in Michigan, York College in Nebraska and Abilene Christian University in Texas claimed membership in Churches of Christ.
That’s no longer the case.
An increasing number of colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ draw more freshmen from outside the fellowship than within, a survey by The Christian Chronicle found.
Ten years ago, Church of Christ members comprised 70 percent of freshmen at 18 Christian higher education institutions, according to a separate study by Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark.
By fall 2009, that figure dropped to 53 percent.
“I think many of us were surprised at the extent of that decline,” said Mike O’Neal, president of Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City and chairman of the Christian Higher Education Foundation, which commissioned Yeakley’s study.
Across the nation, total combined freshman enrollment has dropped sharply at the institutions studied by Yeakley.
However, new programs for graduate scholars and non-traditional students have helped fuel overall enrollment growth at some Christian universities.
Yeakley collected annual data for 1997 through 2009.
The 18 institutions he studied reported total freshman enrollment of 5,361 in fall 2009 — down 19 percent from a high of 6,636 in fall 2001.
“Most of that decline came because fewer members of the Churches of Christ were enrolling in these schools,” Yeakley reported to the Christian Higher Education Foundation, which consists of presidents of colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ.
At the beginning of this school year, 2,858 freshmen claimed membership in Churches of Christ — down 36 percent from a high of 4,461 in fall 2001, Yeakley reported.
“As we begin to examine this trend,” O’Neal said, “it appears that two of the most significant reasons contributing to the decline are the attraction of our schools to families outside our fellowship … and less encouragement of Church of Christ young people by parents and church leaders.”
Included in the study were Abilene Christian; now-closed Cascade College in Portland, Ore.; Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould, Ark.; Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala.; Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.; Great Lakes Bible College in Waterloo, Ontario; Harding University in Searcy; Heritage Christian University in Florence, Ala.; and Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
Also included were Lubbock Christian University in Texas; now-closed Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Miss; Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va.; Oklahoma Christian; Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.; Rochester College; Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas; Western Christian College in Regina, Saskatchewan; and York College.
“Yeakley’s findings should serve as a catalyst for open dialogue in Churches of Christ,” said Brian Starr, Lubbock Christian’s executive vice president. “Why are we in decline? Why does the decline seem to disproportionately be hitting our youth? How is God calling our fellowship and its universities to engage the world in this new environment?”

At Rochester College, 24 percent of traditional students gave their religious affiliation as Church of Christ in fall 2009.
That’s down from 55 percent in 2000, said Rubel Shelly, president of the Detroit area college.
One explanation: More students with Church of Christ backgrounds write “non-denominational,” “Christian” or “independent” on their registration forms, Shelly said. But a bigger factor, he said, is a decline in the membership pool of Churches of Christ.
“Churches that once had 600 to 800 members may have 100 now,” Shelly said, noting that many Bible Belt church members who moved to Detroit to build cars after World War II retired and returned to the South.
At York College, a majority of freshmen have come from outside Churches of Christ the last two years. In fall 2009, 42 percent of freshmen listed their religious affiliation as Church of Christ.
While citing some of the same factors as Shelly, York President Steve Eckman voiced concern about “a lack of emphasis on Christian education among the families and churches. It is no longer assumed that these kids will choose a Christian education.”
For the first time since its 1906 founding, Abilene Christian enrolled a majority of freshmen from outside Churches of Christ in fall 2008.
A decade ago, two-thirds of ACU students identified with Churches of Christ, the university said. That has declined to about one-half.
Phil Schubert, who will succeed Royce Money as ACU president June 1, said he does not see the changing student demographics as a negative.
He points out that some of the non-Church of Christ students are the children and grandchildren of ACU graduates. They do not attend a Church of Christ, he said, “yet they resemble the heart of our alumni base.” Other students have no past ties to ACU or Churches of Christ, he said.
“We feel that honoring our Church of Christ heritage and remaining firmly committed to it is at the core of who we are,” said Schubert, ACU’s executive vice president. “At the same time, we think the growing interest in ACU from broader circles is something to be celebrated.”
At Faulkner University, 31 percent of freshmen identified with Churches of Christ in fall 2009; 36 percent claimed a different affiliation; and 33 percent cited no religious preference or marked “other.”
Factors contributing to Faulkner’s declining number of Church of Christ students include the expansion of a commuter scholarship program and the addition of new intercollegiate sports, said R. Joel Farrell, director of the university’s Center for Assessment, Research and Evaluation.
“One of the factors affecting Faulkner … is the increasing appeal of a conservative, religiously based liberal arts education to the general population,” Farrell said. “An increasing number of parents and students are interested in the distinctiveness of our worldview.”
Before it became a senior college 17 years ago, Ohio Valley University drew 80 percent to 90 percent of its students from Churches of Christ, said Dennis Cox, senior vice president. In recent years, however, the traditional student enrollment has been split about 50-50, Cox said.
“First, there are fewer prospective students in the churches in what has been our primary ‘territory,’” Cox said. “Secondly, most of our Church of Christ alumni with college-age children are also alumni of sister colleges and universities.”
In fall 2009, Lubbock Christian joined the list of universities with more freshmen from outside Churches of Christ than within. Non-Church of Christ students represented 57 percent of the freshman class this school year — up from 36 percent a decade ago.
“The majority of our students come from the area in and around Lubbock,” Starr said. “The Church of Christ population is declining in many West Texas towns, and that decline changes our recruiting pool.”
At Lipscomb University, a slim majority of freshmen — 51 percent — came from Church of Christ backgrounds in fall 2009. Five years ago, 62 percent of freshmen were Church of Christ members.
“Enrollment by freshmen who identify themselves as members of Churches of Christ has declined over the last three years, but not as fast as our overall enrollment has grown,” said Ricky Holaway, Lipscomb’s senior director of admissions. “Part of the issue is, we are attracting more students who are seeking out the faith-based education, grounded in our brotherhood’s faith principles, that we offer.”
At Pepperdine University, the proportion of freshmen from Churches of Christ hit 26 percent in 2003. In fall 2009, such students represented 16 percent of freshmen.
“With an overall declining church population nationwide, the task of recruiting and enrolling qualified applicants from the Churches of Christ is a growing challenge,” said Mike Truschke, Pepperdine’s dean of admission and enrollment management. “University-wide, there has been an increased effort to reach students from the Churches of Christ.”

Oklahoma Christian still draws a majority of students from Churches of Christ — but the percentage is on the decline. In fall 2009, 68 percent of Oklahoma Christian students came from Churches of Christ. That’s down from 80 percent seven years ago.
Oklahoma Christian has appointed a strategic issue group to examine the impact of student demographic changes.
“We are experiencing some decline in the last few years in our new student enrollment from Churches of Christ,” said Bill Goad, OC’s vice president for institutional effectiveness. “Our percentages remain above the composite in the Yeakley numbers, but they are clearly following that general trend.”
At least a few universities, however, seem to be bucking the trend.
At Freed-Hardeman University, 85 percent of freshmen claimed Church of Christ membership in fall 2009, up from 84 percent a decade ago.
“If indeed fewer Church of Christ students are enrolling at our brotherhood institutions, we should be concerned,” said Jud Davis, Freed-Hardeman’s director of marketing and university relations.
However, he questioned whether other factors could be at play — including the recession and a desire by some students to attend college closer to home.
At Harding University, Church of Christ members made up 75 percent of the freshman class in fall 2009.
That’s down slightly from past years, but it’s no cause for concern, said Glenn Dillard, assistant vice president for enrollment management.
“The aggregate number of Church of Christ students at Harding has declined very little,” Dillard said. “However, Harding has experienced dramatic growth in the number of bright students from non-Church of Christ backgrounds.”
As student populations change at universities associated with Churches of Christ, some express fear that the institutions could lose what makes them distinct.
“This trend,” Yeakley said, “can continue to the point where the school follows the path of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other schools that started out as religiously oriented schools that lost their religious emphasis.”
But at places such as Rochester College, survival demands adapting to the new realities, leaders said.
“True to the rhetoric of our non-denominational heritage,” Shelly said, “Rochester College is committed to being a Christian college for our region that young people from a variety of backgrounds can choose as their destination campus.”
Total enrollment

1997: 5,820
1998: 5,882
1999: 6,219
2000: 6,643
2001: 6,636
2002: 6,351
2003: 6,164
2004: 6,299
2005: 6,553
2006: 6,331
2007: 5,328
2008: 5,371
2009: 5,361
Church of Christ members

1997: 3,664 (63%)
1998: 3,754 (63.8%)
1999: 4,351 (70%)
2000: 4,411 (66.4%)
2001: 4,461 (67.2%)
2002: 4,060 (63.9%)
2003: 4,034 (65.4%)
2004: 4,208 (66.8%)
2005: 4,175 (63.7%)
2006: 4,029 (63.6%)
2007: 3,080 (57.8%)
2008: 2,948 (54.9%)
2009: 2,858 (53.3%)
Not members

1997: 2,156 (37%)
1998: 2,128 (36.2%)
1999: 1,868 (30%)
2000: 2,232 (33.6%)
2001: 2,175 (32.8%)
2002: 2,291 (36.1%)
2003: 2,130 (34.6%)
2004: 2,091 (33.2%)
2005: 2,378 (36.3%)
2006: 2,302 (36.4%)
2007: 2,248 (42.2%)
2008: 2,423 (45.1%)
2009: 2,503 (46.7%)
SOURCE: Study by Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark. Yeakley studied freshman enrollment trends at 18 higher education institutions associated with Churches of Christ. Yeakley reported that some university presidents found his report hard to believe and asked him to double-check his figures. While that effort uncovered a few minor changes, the general trend held. “This, of course, is just what and not why,” he said of his findings.

  • Feedback
    More than likely the decline mirrors the declining membership of congregations since the 60’s.
    Most parents think their kid in grades 1 thru 12 is not being taught contrary to the Bible.
    Parents need to start worrying about what they’re teaching concerning evolution,global warming,etc.
    Tim Gibson
    Obion church of Christ
    Union City, Tennessee
    April, 23 2012

    This is a very interesting article and I suppose the results could be interpreted many ways. My guess is that there are far more Christian students who attend state universities and attending a Christ-centered school does not automatically lead to Christian behavior.
    Darrell Trimble
    Fairview Church of Christ
    Columbia, TN
    April, 29 2010

    Christian Colleges cost a fortune. My daughter’s soul is worth a fortune. I want my money to go to a school where the Bible is taught to be inerrent and that every word of it is taught as truth. I listen for uncertain sounds coming from our colleges and I plan, with God’s help to send my money where the truth is least compromised. I want her professors to be men and women of the book and her peers students of God. Freed-Hardeman here we come.
    Michael Carter
    Somers Ave. Church of Christ
    North Litttle Rock, AR
    United States
    April, 23 2010

    The numbers aren’t too suprising when you consider that there is an inverse relationship between how true a university has remained to our heritage and the percentage of COC students enrolled. For example, FHU and Harding by most any observer have remained more faithful and have high percentages of COC youth enrolled in contrast to Lipscomb and Pepperdine which are much more liberal in terms of faculty and campus life.
    Nashville, TN
    April, 21 2010

    I wanted my oldest to go to a C of C school, but as a single dad, I wasn’t able to receive any financial help. There was help for single mothers, females and preachers’ kids, but none for someone like me. There is no way I will be able to send my son to a Christian school due to the cost – $40,000 a year vs $3,500 for a state school. Unfortunately, it’s a no-brainer for using my money.
    Greg Fite
    San Jose coC
    Jacksonville, FL
    April, 12 2010

    What I find interesting is the diversity of response to the articles — and a little disconcerting. Whether “insider” or “outsider”, do you think Mainstream Baptist colleges are watering down doctrine to attract outsiders? I went to a local Lutheran school and was taught Lutheran doctrine in my classes. What is so appalling about a church supported college representing the beliefs and values of its adherents? Part of the mission is the advance the church’s beliefs and doctrines. What is disconcerting is that church members have such a disdainful attitude toward the church that taught them Christ — why stay with us if we make you ashamed?
    Randy Doyle
    Moline Church of Christ
    Moline, IL
    April, 10 2010

    The time may have arrived that the Lord’s people need to call themselves by a different name, given the fact that so many choose to use the recent historical reference to His body as a noun proper equal to all others, and that many using that name have chosen to look like the denominations about them such that we must now use distinguish-ers such as ‘non-instrumental’ or ‘instrumental’. This has been a long time coming … and looks remarkably similar to the turn of the 19th-20th century. The Lord’s people will continue to be characterized by what one may read for oneself in the scripture, and those who are not of the Lord will continue to be characterized by what one may not read in the scripture.
    Gary Wells
    Henderson Blvd church of Christ
    Tampa, FL
    April, 5 2010

    I think the percentages could very well be reflecting the doctrinal position of the universities. When an institution promotes the values of the Church of Christ, who do you expect will be attracted to that institution? Can’t we therefore assume that the more the “Church of Christ” universities become like the world, the more its demographic will reflect that perspective?
    Though I expect my kids to be even better prepared to evangelize once they graduate, the reason for sending them to a Church of Christ University is to further ground them in their faith, continue to learn the biblical perspective in the context of general education, and associate with like-minded peers at a time in their lives when temptations can be strong.
    Todd Mikula
    Bell Shoals
    Valrico, FL
    March, 19 2010

    Looks like Christian teens and their parents are seriously evaluating where these schools stand in their presentation of the Gospel and respect for Scripture. The schools that are solid in their Bible departments are drawing the larger portion of students. The schools who compromise their conservative roots in order to draw from liberal denominational students and non-christian students are selling out our kids.
    Bill Ousley
    Broad Street
    Lexington, TN
    March, 19 2010

    I think we need to take a long, hard look at the purpose of Christian education. If the point is to keep the saved safe, then we really want to keep out all the “renegades” as a previous commenter put it.
    However, the history of the Restoration movement is one of inviting and sharing. We didn’t introduce Christianity to the US, we called Christians to unity based on the New Testament, not denominational creeds. What if we were a voice for unity again? What if, instead of hiding from people with different thoughts, we offer to let them learn from us and we seek to learn from them.
    James Wood
    Portland, OR
    March, 16 2010

    No doubt the declining numbers represent some young people’s decision to abandon their parents’ Church of Christ, while for others it may simply represent a growing awareness that there’s another world out there worth discovering in which a young person can stand up and be counted among those who not only love God but love their unbelieving neighbor. They want to prove themselves ‘in the field’, taking Christ to them rather than hoping they’ll come to Christ. I, myself, was an outsider received by an evangelistic, service-oriented Church of Christ student org. at a public univ. which helped me to grow in faith and encouraged me to go into the foreign mission field – something that was natural since I’d already been in one for 4 years!
    Scott Emery
    Iglesia de Cristo Congregacion Providencia
    Santiago, n/a
    March, 12 2010

    A former ‘outsider’ myself, I’ve always observed a disconcerting tendency in Churches of Christ to shut out those not like us or, alternatively, to shut ourselves in – within our churches, within our institutions, within our publications – for protection from perceived threats ‘out there’. A willingness by our young people to explore other worlds and a willingness by our institutions to receive more ‘outsiders’ should be seen as a step forward, not backward. Let’s look at as a blessing and an opportunity rather than a threat or a tragedy!
    Scott Emery
    Iglesia de Cristo Congregacion Providencia
    Santiago, x
    March, 12 2010

    My wife and I are missionaries who attended a state univ. where we were part of a peer-lead, mission-minded, encourage-one-another student fellowship called Aggies for Christ. We didn’t need curfews, mandatory chapel attend. or Christian prof. to remain strong in our chosen faith. That experience strengthened our growth as Christ’s disciples as we chose to be counted among the faithful and to serve non-Christians in a way that is likely not available at Christian inst. where belief may be assumed and spiritual growth might be stunted by unnecessary sheltering. We pray that our kids will also choose to become not only Aggies, but Aggies for Christ, as we’re confident they’ll be stronger for it than if they choose a trad. Christian univ.
    Scott Emery
    Iglesia de Cristo Congregacion Providencia
    Santiago, xx
    March, 12 2010

    I believe in Christian education. All of my children attended Harding. I attended Lipscomb my first year, but graduated from a state school closer to home. I think it is no coincidence that Harding, Oklahoma and Freed are still having large numbers of freshmen from Churches of Christ, while some of our other schools are declining in that area. If my grandchildren were ready for college, I would be looking closely at what the emphasis and teaching was at a particular school before I paid the extra money to have them educated at that institution.
    Fran Henniger
    Richland Church of Christ
    Richland, WA
    March, 11 2010

    Another factor as far as cost goes is the much greater cost for private Christian education in schools not affiliated with Churches of Christ. Families who want a Christian based post high school education are comparing the numbers. Our schools (despite the complaints of high cost) are a bargain compared with most of the evangelical schools of higher education. We should do all we can to take advantage of all opportunities to share and build faith in our youth. .
    Diane Stephens
    Livonia Church of Christ
    Livonia, MI
    March, 9 2010

    Great googly-moogly! The problem is not the schools. The schools are reflecting the changes taking place in the denomination. If anything, out of deference to the fear of being harshly labeled, the schools have taken too long to adjust to those changes. Faced with the choice of survival or continued marginalization, some schools are (no surprise here) choosing to survive. Those who survive and thrive will thankfully shed their sectarian origins. The rest will either close their doors or continue preaching to a shrinking choir.
    Tim Alexander
    Smith Springs
    Antioch, TN
    March, 9 2010

    It is possible a few factors play into the decline. 1)A decline in recruiting efforts, 2) A lack of degree opportunities, 3) Economic impact of the current Recession, 4)Parents / churches not emphasizing Christian education.
    There are also advantages of this increase in non-member enrollment. The greatest is the opportunity for these schools to teach Bible to these students and bring them to Christ.
    Scott McCown
    Parrish Church of Christ
    Oakman, AL
    March, 9 2010

    Our Church of Christ heritage shines brightest when we focus on welcoming others into our midst. As a professor at Rochester College and a member of Rochester Church of Christ, I am blessed to be a part of a community of faith that treats all Christians as “insiders” and focuses primarily on sharing the message of Jesus through service and love.
    Anne Nichols
    Rochester Church of Christ
    Washington, MI
    March, 9 2010

    Historically, when the percentage of outsiders is too high, a dedicated atmosphere is no longer maintained. The renegades from Christian homes combine with the others to set the tone.
    Otis Gatewood was the first president of Michigan Christian College. Now it is Rochester College (‘Christian’ dropped from the name) with a different kind of president. What do you expect?
    Roy Davison
    Alken, Limburg
    March, 9 2010

    Freed-Hardeman baby! Folks can criticize the school all that they want to for being “stuck” or “ultra-whatever”…but 85% is a solid number. I also know, first hand, that the (student body) 85% are evangelizing and working hard with the other 15%, as well as their community. Other schools should take note. There’s value in keeping your identity.
    Taft Ayers
    Main St Church of Christ
    Milan, TN
    March, 8 2010

    These trends show us that we need to do the following things:
    (1) Teach distinctive New Testament Christianity and rebuild parents’ faith in our Christian universities.
    (2) Utilize opportunities to evangelize students on campus who are outside the Lord’s church.
    (3) Offer more scholarship money to those from Christian families. Several young people from the Lord’s church would love to go to a Christian school, but cannot afford it.
    (4) Educate parents on the value of Christian education.
    David Stewart
    Foothills Church of Christ
    Searcy, Arkansas
    March, 8 2010

    Cost is one factor for the decrease. Traditional churches no longer see any sense of loyalty in most colleges and universities to churches of Christ is another reason. I have been observing the way some of our colleges and universities work and it is clear that the kids from outside of our fellowship are being catered to. If people are concerned that their children will be led away from churches of Chirst they feel safer sending their kids to a state school if it has a good church near it. I have no idea what churches of Chirst will look like in the future but I do see many schools that have formely been associated with churches of Christ severing ties with their roots.
    TR Wells
    Alvaton church of Chirst
    Alvaton, Ky
    March, 8 2010

    Note that some parents would rather send their children to a state school where they know what false teachings to expect rather than to an historically church of Christ school that has begun to include some teachings that don’t agree with the parents’ interpretations of scripture. We are all aware that there has been some controversy regarding the doctrinal teaching at some of “our” schools.
    Gary Greene
    Brentwood CA
    Brentwood, CA
    March, 8 2010

    My wife and I have long agreed that we would send our children to Christian colleges of the Stone-Campbell Movement. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean non-instrumental Church of Christ institutions. There are several good universities and Bible colleges among the independent (instrumental) churches.
    A further wrinkle is that there are many strong ICOC (sans the craziness of their recent past), instrumental and non-instrumental campus ministries operating on secular campuses. For some budget-conscious families state universities with a healthy Christian community on campus can be an attractive alternative to shelling out a fortune for a private school.
    Adam Gonnerman
    Central Jersey Church of Christ
    Kearny, NJ
    March, 8 2010

Filed under: Top Stories

Don’t miss out on more stories like this.

Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Did you enjoy this article?

Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

Personal Info

Dedicate this Donation

In Honor/Memory of Details

Card Notification Details

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.
Billing Details

Donation Total: $3 One Time