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York College in Nebraska | Photo by Steddon Sikes

Q&A: Christian university leaders on recruiting students in a declining fellowship

'While the overall membership of the Church of Christ is shrinking, the number of church members attending our Christian universities seems to be shrinking at a faster rate.'

Since 2000, Christian universities associated with Churches of Christ have seen a 51 percent decline in students who identify with the fellowship, an annual survey by higher education researcher Trace S. Hebert found.

The Christian Chronicle asked leaders of those universities to discuss the recruiting challenges and how they are addressing them.


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


Click the website screenshots to learn more about the individual universities.

Abilene Christian University

Location: Abilene, Texas. Established: 1906. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 5,149, up from 4,916 in fall 2016. Interviewee: Kevin Campbell, vice president for enrollment management and student engagement.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: Relatively stable for the past four or five years.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: We recruit every Church of Christ student in our region that we can find and we believe can be successful at our institution. We continue to try to strengthen our relationships with churches and schools in our region as well as where we have strong alumni presence.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: It matters greatly. We are proud and committed to our Church of Christ heritage. Our faculty and board of trustees require active membership in a local Church of Christ congregation. We have deep and long-lasting relationships with churches, parachurch organizations and secondary schools that are associated with the Churches of Christ. We value those relationships and desire to continue to strengthen them.

We recruit every Church of Christ student in our region that we can find and we believe can be successful at our institution. At the same time, we have also expanded our recruitment with other conservative Christian students who desire a Christian education. Many of the students we pursue in addition to the Churches of Christ are members of non-denominational churches, community churches, Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church and Baptist churches.


Crowley’s Ridge College

Location: Paragould, Ark. Established: 1964. Fall 2017 total enrollment: Full-time resident student population up 4.3 percent over last year. (Did not give specific figures.) Interviewee: President Ken Hoppe.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: Our fellowship’s declining numbers nationwide are having a negative impact on the number of college-bound freshmen available to attend our Christian colleges and universities from within our fellowship. Another trend that we are seeing is a decline in parents’ commitment to send their college-age children to colleges and universities affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: Our admissions director, Chris Hughes, reports that he is directing his staff to increase the total number of church visits by his admissions representatives and focus more heavily on making a personal connection with students and parents in an attempt to describe and explain the lasting benefits of a college education in a Christian environment.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: It does matter to us at Crowley’s Ridge College because of our heritage as a Christian college affiliated with the Churches of Christ with our major support coming from the Churches of Christ fellowship. We want members of the Churches of Christ fellowship to know they can send their college-bound student to CRC, and our mission will be to provide an environment that will allow the student to grow spiritually and academically. We also recognize the wonderful opportunity to minister to the students coming to CRC who have not yet made a faith commitment.


Faulkner University

Location: Montgomery, Ala. Established: 1942. Fall 2017 total enrollment: Did not respond to requests for information. Interviewee: Did not respond.


Florida College

Location: Temple Terrace, Fla. Established: 1946. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 508, down from 533 in fall 2016. Interviewee: Paul J. Casebolt, director of admissions and retention services.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: More and more members of the Churches of Christ are (more) concerned with taking on student loan debt and the cost of college than in previous years. Christian families tend to be — and for good reason — more fiscally conservative than the typical family. Media coverage of the student loan crisis makes people see them as less of an investment in the student and more of an anchor hanging around their necks upon graduation.

Additionally, high-achieving students — and even those in the upper-middle achievement range — are being offered significant academic scholarships to state institutions, making it more difficult for us to compete.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: We have taken a hard look at all of our current scholarship offerings and are looking for ways to supplement it. For example, through an administrative reorganization, we were able reallocate an additional $230,000 toward student scholarships for students entering in the fall of 2018.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: Did not reply to these questions.


Freed-Hardeman University

Location: Henderson, Tenn. Established: 1869. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 1,906, down from 1,972 in fall 2016. Interviewee: Joe Askew, associate vice president of enrollment management.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: Percent-wise, it is steady. A little over 80 percent of our first-time freshmen are members of the Churches of Christ. This is right in line with our five-year average and just slightly below the 10-year average. From a headcount standpoint, there is some concern. We are seeing a slight downward trend in the number of students graduating from high school who self-report affiliation with the Churches of Christ and who are interested in attending a private, religiously affiliated institution. Because of this, we are working harder and harder every year to maintain the same-sized bite of a shrinking pie.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: We have a multi-layered system for recruiting and enrolling Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen. Because of our mission, we believe our presence will only become stronger in organizations and churches with deep Church of Christ roots.


Related: Guest column: ‘This is not a “Church of Christ”-related challenge’


Our biggest challenge is getting families to see the value in Christian education. Many believe that there is no difference between a private religiously-affiliated university and a state school. With the Presidential Trek and other school and church visits, we are addressing that very dangerous perception through college planning and financial aid seminars.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: It is important that we maintain recruitment of Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen and transfer students. By serving them, we serve the churches and communities that they are connected to now and will be leaders in the future. This is a key component of our university mission. The inverse is also true: This influential population of students serve the university as well. They contribute, serve, lead and challenge the faculty, staff and students around them to be better, making the campus community an even more special place.


Harding University

Location: Searcy, Ark. Established: 1924. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 5,545, down from 5,904 in fall 2016. Interviewee: Jana Rucker, vice president for university communications and enrollment.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: While the overall membership of the Church of Christ is shrinking, the number of church members attending our Christian universities seems to be shrinking at a faster rate. We see this as an opportunity to emphasize the benefits of a Christian university — not just Harding — to our churches.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: Because many grads are choosing non-church-affiliated schools, we are concerned that the academic strength of our institutions is a “too well-kept secret,” when in reality we have the very same accreditation as the most famous universities, and we actually offer numerous academic advantages such as smaller class sizes and classes taught by professors instead of grad assistants, etc.

We are being more intentional in promoting strong academics that are competitive with other schools as well as to emphasize the environmental and experiential benefits of a Christian school. Students are also highly peer influenced. We are using testimonials from current students, who are experiencing these benefits right now, as we communicate with prospective students.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: We remain committed to the Church of Christ as our target demographic, but Harding has always been open to all who are seeking a Christ-centered education with strong academics, no matter their background. We hope to increase the interest of our church families in Christian higher ed and how our Christian universities are so valuable to the academic and faith development of their sons and daughters.


Lipscomb University

Location: Nashville, Tenn. Established: 1891. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 4,572, down from 4,642 in fall 2016. Interviewee: Matt Paden, chief of staff.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: Over the last few years we, like many of our sister institutions, have seen a trend toward a smaller number of prospective students who identify their religious preference as Church of Christ, which reflects a larger trend nationally. We have also seen a trend toward more students identifying as non-denominational or more generally Christian.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: As a rapidly growing institution that has nearly doubled its enrollment over the last decade, Lipscomb University has actively recruited students from Church of Christ high schools and congregations across the country. As the pool of students who identify as Church of Christ has diminished, obviously our percentage of students with that faith background has gone down.

But young people from a variety of faith backgrounds have also found Lipscomb University to be an institution that offers a quality Christian education which prepares them for their careers while nurturing their spiritual formation through the integration of faith and academics, service and mission opportunities, worship and other experiences. There is great need in the world today for Christian education.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: Our goal in recruiting new students is that Lipscomb University be a place that is a ‘good fit’ for them spiritually, academically and socially. We are very bold about our focus on faith, our core Christian values and our heritage, and we believe Lipscomb University is a place where young people from Churches of Christ and other backgrounds can, and do, grow in their faith.


Lubbock Christian University

Location: Lubbock, Texas. Established: 1957. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 1,883, down from 1,912 in fall 2016. Interviewee: Warren McNeill, vice president for marketing and public relations.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: Consistent with the results of Dr. Trace Hebert’s research, we have experienced a decline over time in the percentage of our freshman class who identify as members of the Churches of Christ.

Nonetheless, that category continues to represent by a wide margin the largest group of students by religious affiliation who enroll at LCU. The second and third largest groups are those who identify as “Christian” or “non-denominational.” In addition, the number of Hispanic students who attend LCU continues to increase, reaching an all-time high of 24.2 percent in the undergraduate student body in the fall of 2017.

Moreover, consistent with well-recognized generational trends, we observe a lessening of loyalty to a specific faith tradition among our students, but we also see an encouraging increase in mission-mindedness. Our students want to make a difference in the world, and they have a growing desire to cooperate with God’s work in renewing and redeeming his creation.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: We seek to build strong connections with Churches of Christ and to enhance our outreach efforts. Among other initiatives, we visit Churches of Christ (youth group visits) and Church of Christ-affiliated private schools, we sponsor and attend Church of Christ-affiliated camps/retreats/conferences, and we host area-wide youth minister luncheons. We also make strategic use of digital media to reach prospective students.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: LCU is a Christ-centered community of learners, and a key strategic priority for the university is to sustain and strengthen our Christian identity. The LCU Board of Trustees adopted a statement in May of 2015 entitled “Our Heritage of Faith,” which states: “The university is committed to continuing to walk with, to serve, and to be sustained by the Churches of Christ.” We will continue to actively recruit students from the Churches of Christ while also welcoming and embracing all of our students who come to us from a variety of faith backgrounds and perspectives. We hope and pray that the university will be a force for truth and reconciliation, consistent with the best instincts of our heritage.


Ohio Valley University

Location: Vienna, W.Va. Established: 1960. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 568, up from 558. Interviewee: Provost Joy Jones.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: In the last 10 years, the percentage has been declining, but fall of 2017, our percentage went up 1 percent.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: We have increased our outreach to the churches and have added an additional emphasis on recruiting “faith-based” students.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: In reality, we understand that there are not sufficient numbers of C of C affiliated students to populate the brotherhood schools. We are increasing our efforts and working to recruit ‘faith-based’ students that will be a good fit for a Christian university.


Oklahoma Christian University

Location: Oklahoma City, Okla. Established: 1950. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 2,489, down from 2,600. Interviewee: Risa Forrester, vice president for admissions and marketing

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: Enrolling students from Churches of Christ is increasingly challenging.  Over the last seven years, OC has seen a steady number of new Church of Christ students (including two years enrolling a higher number than average) attending.

For the years prior to this plateau period, however, we decreased steadily. Most graduating high school seniors in our fellowship do not attend a Church of Christ-affiliated institution despite clear, significant spiritual, educational, emotional, professional and relational benefits. Interestingly, families outside our fellowship see and value these benefits and want their students at Oklahoma Christian University.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: OC is spending more time and resources connecting with families, prospective students and congregations in our fellowship.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: Attracting and retaining students from Churches of Christ is very, very important to us, and that’s why we work hard at it. The annual survey produced by Dr. Hebert tells us that our affiliated institutions collectively are having decreased success enrolling students from Churches of Christ. The trend suggests it will get even harder in the future.


Pepperdine University

Location: Malibu, Calif. Established: 1937. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 940 new undergraduates, up from 854. Interviewee: Kristin Paredes Collins, dean of enrollment management, Seaver College (Pepperdine’s undergraduate school).

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: The biggest trend we are seeing across all religiously affiliated students is that they are much less likely to select a denominational affiliation. Instead, students are more likely to select “Other Christian,” which means the “Other Christian” group on campus is on an upward trajectory.  Students are also noting that they attended a Church of Christ in the past or they have extended family who are currently attending — even though they might not be.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: Each year, we implement new strategies specifically designed to increase our Church of Christ enrollment — these strategies include things like application fee waivers, handwritten and personalized communication, leveraging other people/departments on campus for outreach, increased opportunities for financial assistance, etc. It is our goal that Church of Christ students understand that Pepperdine is an excellent place for them to pursue an education.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: It is our goal to recruit qualified Church of Christ students — we do not preference first-year students over transfer students. In addition, our Church of Christ enrollment target shifts each year, as it is connected to the number of qualified applicants we receive. Instead, we have a goal to admit every qualified Church of Christ applicant.


Rochester College

Location: Rochester Hills, Mich. Established: 1959. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 1,172, down from 1,174 in fall 2016. The traditional student body, however, grew by 7.3 percent (42 more students). Interviewee: Lora Hutson, communication specialist and associate professor of mass communication.

Question: What trends is your institution seeing in terms of recruiting freshmen from Churches of Christ?

Answer: Consistent with both regional and national numbers pertaining to Churches of Christ, we too have experienced declines in students claiming membership to said churches. However, we are noticing substantial increases related to students identifying with “non-denominational” churches.

Q: How are you addressing the challenges described in your response to the previous question?

A: Rochester College values the connection and affiliation with our founding church heritage. The recruitment of students who identify with this heritage is a priority in the recruiting process. We also welcome, and actively recruit, all students who meet our academic admission requirements.

Q: To what extent does it matter to you whether you recruit Church of Christ-affiliated freshmen? Have the challenges illustrated by Dr. Hebert’s findings caused you to expand or otherwise adjust your target demographic for freshman students?

A: Rochester College continues to recruit students, both regionally and nationally, regardless of their specific church affiliation. Our admissions team follows our institutional mission when recruiting. We partner with local, regional and national church and para-church organizations in our recruitment efforts.


Southwestern Christian College

Location: Terrell, Texas. Established: 1948. Fall 2017 total enrollment: Unavailable. Interviewee: President Ervin D. Seamster Jr. was unavailable for comment after a recent surgery.


York College

Location: York, Neb. Established: 1956. Fall 2017 total enrollment: 462 undergraduates, up from 447 in fall 2016. Interviewee: President Steve Eckman.

Eckman did not respond to specific questions but shared these observations: There are fewer and fewer church of Christ kids in the North Central states, and fewer and fewer churches. We have raised $2 million to endow scholarships for members of the Church of Christ or children of alumni. We are giving extraordinary scholarship help to students from our heritage.

The shift in demographic for us is that 70 percent of our students come from out of state. All of the Christian colleges are all seeing demographic shifts, and ours are coming because we’re not geographically centered where the bulk of our students are coming from. (Many of our students come from urban centers in Texas and California.)

We’re not just in the mission field, but we are the mission field. That’s the reality of our circumstance. We’ve never had a better opportunity to transform lives through Christ-centered education than we do today.

Many of our students come here ‘unchurched’ and leave here with a different perspective and direction. All we can do is plant and water, and God is going to give the increase. All we can do is expose them to the spiritual dimension of life. Many of our students have never experienced that before. In all honesty, I’d say the ones who come to Christ through their experiences here are going to be stronger Christians in the long run than those students who grew up in the church and York College is just an extension of what they had at home.

Filed under: National Partners Christian higher education

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