Rising enrollments fueled by graduates
After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Reely stayed at Harding University to pursue a master of business administration degree.
While her graduate work did not require Bible classes or daily chapel attendance, the faith-based nature of Harding still played a significant role, she said.
“Business ethics were taught with a foundation in Christ’s teachings, and servant leadership in the workplace was emphasized,” said Reely, 24, who grew up in the Seventh and Mueller Church of Christ in Paragould, Ark.
A quarter-century ago, Harding drew primarily undergraduate students to its small-town campus about 45 miles northeast of Little Rock.
In the past 25 years, though, graduate programs have helped fuel hefty enrollment increases at Harding, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., and a number of other Christian universities, a survey by The Christian Chronicle found.
“Part of it is the need. The market has indicated that there’s a need for those programs,” said Jim Carr, Harding’s executive vice president, interviewed in the university’s American Heritage Center, an educational and dining facility that has undergone millions of dollars in renovations to keep up with growth. “But secondly, we’re almost at current capacity at the undergraduate level.”
In 1985, few higher-education institutions associated with Churches of Christ awarded master’s degrees, much less doctorates.
Notable exceptions included Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Now, Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., Lubbock Christian University in Texas and Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City all serve hundreds of graduate students.
Add in smaller programs at Heritage Christian University in Florence, Ala., Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., and Rochester College in Michigan, and schools associated with Churches of Christ enroll thousands more graduate students than they did two decades ago.
Kevin Huddleston returned to the classroom after 25 years in youth ministry, taking advantage of a Rochester College graduate program that mixes one-week-a-semester intensive seminars on campus with Internet studies.
“I hate to admit it, but I am old enough to have a nostalgic view of the church,” said Huddleston, 46, a 1986 graduate of Abilene Christian, where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “At times, that nostalgia can become a barrier to ministry.”
He explained: “We live in a world where we cannot assume some things that we once assumed. … We cannot assume that the people in our own worship services, much less our communities, know our language, our heritage and our stories.”
Huddleston, youth and family minister at the Johnson Street Church of Christ in San Angelo, Texas, sees the master’s program in missional leadership as a way to “retool for ministry.”
A NEW RECORD, YEAR AFTER YEAR
For 24 straight years, Harding has recorded a new all-time high enrollment.
The university’s total enrollment has jumped from 2,994 students in fall 1985 to 6,748 students in fall 2010. That’s a 125 percent increase.
Harding’s remarkable growth — with David Burks as president since 1987 — has not gone unnoticed by other Christian universities.
Oklahoma Christian President Mike O’Neal points to Harding’s longevity and consistency of leadership and its entrepreneurial spirit.
“They have been willing to step out there and attract new markets,” said O’Neal, a 1968 Harding graduate who served on the business faculty in the mid-1970s.
At the same time, O’Neal said, Harding has maintained close relations with alumni and Churches of Christ and developed a strong pipeline of students.
“It’s not that there’s not competition around, because they’ve got Lipscomb and Freed on the east, and they’ve got us and Abilene and Lubbock on the west, so they certainly have done it in spite of there being other alternatives for students to go to,” he said.
In 1985, the university’s 390 graduate students consisted mainly of education majors at the Searcy campus and Bible majors at the Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn.
Now, Harding offers master’s degrees and doctorates in a variety of business, education, medical and ministry fields, with 2,575 full- and part-time graduate students.
The graduate programs support the university’s mission by integrating faith and learning, vice president Carr said.
At the same time, graduate studies often occur at night, so they do not compete for undergraduate classroom space, he said.
Typically, the students do not live on campus, so there’s no need to provide housing or dining services for them.
“I don’t want to give you the feeling that our graduate and professional programs pay for our undergraduate program,” Carr said. “They certainly don’t do that, but they contribute to it. And I think having those more mature students on campus is also a positive.”
LESSONS OF THE MASTER TEACHER
At Lipscomb, total enrollment has risen 65 percent since 1985 — up to 3,742 students from 2,262.
From 38 Bible master’s degree students 25 years ago, graduate enrollment has grown to nearly 1,100 students in business, accounting, conflict management, psychology and other areas.
The Nashville university offers doctorates in education and pharmacy and just announced a new doctoral degree in ministry.
“Today’s graduate student is often a working professional who attends classes at non-traditional times like weekends and evenings,” said Deby Samuels, Lipscomb’s vice president of communication and marketing.
“Over the years, this means we have been able to maximize the use of existing facilities.”
Lipscomb is open for classes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week, she said.
Millie Norwood earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Lipscomb.
Now teaching in a Nashville public middle school, Norwood remains a Lipscomb student, taking classes at night, on weekends and even online as she works toward a doctorate in education.
Even at the doctoral level, she said, Lipscomb’s education professors don’t hesitate to make biblical applications or refer to Jesus as the “master teacher.”
“The professors are open about talking about God,” said Norwood, 25, a member of the Ethridge Church of Christ in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. “We always start with a prayer and prayer requests.”
Norwood said she could have chosen a state university for her doctoral studies. “But it would not have had a faith component,” she said. “That’s important to me.”
Among all public and private colleges and universities, the annual number of master’s degrees awarded more than doubled in the past two decades, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.
“It’s just increasingly more common for the master’s degree to be the degree for entry into certain fields,” said Nathan Bell, the council’s research and policy analysis director, noting that MBA and education programs account for half of all master’s degrees and that women and minorities comprise the fastest-growing segment of graduate students.
Private, nonprofit institutions saw a 79 percent increase in post-baccalaureate enrollment from 1983 to 2008, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
“Most of this growth seems attributable to the changing educational needs of today’s workforce,” said Brian Starr, Lubbock Christian’s executive vice president. “Adult workers who never finished college and those who completed only an undergraduate degree are hitting career ceilings and finding that further education is a real key to the next step of advancement.”
At the same time, the growth reflects the maturing of Christian universities, many of which emerged in the post-World War II era, Starr said.
MAINTAINING THE TIES THAT BIND
Still another factor for institutions associated with Churches of Christ: a shrinking pool of undergraduates from within the fellowship as overall church membership has fallen since the 1980s.
A decade ago, Church of Christ members comprised 70 percent of freshmen at institutions studied by Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth. By fall 2009, that figure dropped to 53 percent, as the Chronicle reported last year.
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.
Rochester College, once known as Michigan Christian College, enrolled 332 students in fall 1985. The student headcount has tripled, hitting 1,078 in fall 2010.
“Twenty-five years ago, we offered only a small sampling of associate’s degrees,” said John Barton, Rochester’s vice president of academic affairs. “Today, we have a large number of bachelor’s degrees for traditional and non-traditional students, degree completion programs, a master’s degree, online courses and hybrid programs.
“Because of this, our student body is larger and more diverse than in the past,” Barton said. “In addition, because of changing church demographics in the Midwest and the college’s more inclusive religious posture, our student body is more religiously diverse than ever before.”
A quarter-century ago, 68 percent of Rochester students identified with Churches of Christ. This school year, 11 percent of students gave their religious affiliation as “Church of Christ.” An additional 23 percent described themselves simply as “Christian,” while 8 percent gave “non-denominational” as their religious preference.
“Staying connected to local congregations of the Churches of Christ remains a priority in our recruiting efforts, and the inclusive posture mixed with the small intimate experience on campus still draws a good number of students from those heritage churches,” Barton said.
Back in Searcy, Harding has bucked the trend of declining Church of Christ representation better than most.
Asked the secret of Harding’s success, Carr cites what he describes as “a great product,” along with competitive pricing and targeted recruiting.
“There is both an art and a science to enrollment development, and I think we have a handle on both of those elements,” Carr said. “We know who fits here, and we go after them with a vengeance. And then, thank the good Lord, a large number select Harding.”
In December, Reely donned her cap and gown as she accepted her MBA. She’s looking for a position in communication management.
“Graduate school is not for everyone, but I feel like professors should spot potential students early and encourage them to pursue their education at the next level,” Reely said. “I know it was the love and support that I received that enabled me to make it through.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Ohio Valley: 0
Okla. Christian: 0
Ohio Valley: 40
Okla. Christian: 317
Crowley’s Ridge: 201
Ohio Valley: 476
Okla. Christian: 2,216
2010: Church of Christ freshmen
Crowley’s Ridge: 30%
Ohio Valley: 46%
Okla. Christian: 64%
FeedbackIt is great to read that Christian schools are providing the higher level degrees. The typical 4-year degree is similar to advanced high school in today’s job market. Christians need to get behind Christian schools by providing students, money and staff.John JenkinsGreat Smoky Mountains Church of ChristGatlinburg, TN
USAJanuary, 8 2011I’m pleased to see the growth in numbers. Don’t let stray sheep wander from the fold. I went to Lipscomb for six years and wound up with a degree in History. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I should’ve concentrated on obtaining an education that’d permit a career and a wife. Today I am jobless and childless. Please don’t let this happen to anyone else.Jason GoldtrapCentral CoC, Haines CityDavenport, FL
USAJanuary, 7 2011