Why Enrollment Is Rising at Large Christian Colleges

 Farran Powell and Briana Boyington

When it came time to apply to colleges, Emilee Flispart submitted applications to several state schools and three Christian institutions.

"I went to a public school throughout my education, but I wanted to get a little bit of that Bible education. And you can't do that at a state school," says Flispart, who grew up in Jeffersonville, Indiana, a small town across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky.

The 21-year-old applied to Lipscomb University and Belmont University, two Christ-centered colleges in Nashville, and Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains that was made famous by Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell. She also applied to several in-state colleges and universities, since she was concerned about college affordability – a factor that also played a role in her decision.

Flispart, who graduates with a degree in kinesiology and exercise science this December, says she chose Belmont over a state school because of its Christian foundation and wide number of undergraduate majors. "Initially, it wasn't the Christian angle that drew me; but from visiting more schools, that became a factor that helped me to decide."

In fact, more college-age students are choosing to attend Christian universities, experts say. The increased interest, they say, has spurred enrollment at many faith-centered schools in recent years.

Among all schools that reported to U.S. News in an annual survey as having a Christian, non-Roman Catholic affiliation, the five schools that grew the most in first-time, first-year enrollment over the last 15 years are institutions that offer faith-based education. The schools with the highest freshman enrollment increases from fall 2001 to fall 2016 are California Baptist University, Arkansas Baptist College, Liberty, Belmont and Bethel University in Tennessee. Four of these Christian-based schools more than tripled the size of their incoming class since fall 2001.

According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, its institutions experienced nearly an 18 percent growth in first-time, full-time enrollment from 2003 to 2015. The CCCU represents more than 150 Christian colleges in the U.S. that define themselves as offering a "Christ-centered higher education."

While Liberty, Belmont, Bethel and Arkansas Baptist aren't members of this council, Cal Baptist and other schools such as Baylor University in Texas are affiliated with CCCU.

Shirley Hoogstra, president of CCCU who was formerly vice president of student life at Calvin College in Michigan, says affordability has played a role in the growth. "I think people see them as good value. When you look across the tuition line, our schools are often in the good value category."

The average sticker price for the 2017-2018 school year among the 135 CCCU schools that submitted tuition and fees data to U.S. News was around $27,400. Compared with the average tuition and fees among all private institutions, the CCCU average price is more than 20 percent cheaper.

Liberty charges nearly 30 percent less in tuition and fees at $24,304 compared with $34,699, the average among private institutions for the 2017-2018 academic year.

"We have board members that are on the board for other Christian colleges who claim that we don't charge enough. But we're proud of that," says Jerry Falwell, president of Liberty and son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who was known for his Christian television show "Old Time Gospel Hour."

Falwell says some of the growth in on-campus student enrollment stemmed from revenue generated through its online degrees as well as a gift from Hobby Lobby, which has a program where it buys distressed properties and donates them to schools and churches. The national retailer, owned by a conservative Christian family, donated a 1 million-square-foot property valued at around $10 million to Liberty in 2003.

Since that time, Liberty has almost quadrupled its enrollment among on-campus students from 1,179 first-time, first-year students in fall 2001 to 3,915 in fall 2016, according to U.S. News data. The school told U.S. News that of the 47,050 undergraduates, around 15,000 are resident, on-campus students. Most of the school's undergraduate enrollment is from online.

"Over the last 10 years, we've spent about a billion dollars on the campus, and that gave us the ability to grow further," the Liberty president says.

Falwell says much of the school's success was built upon its long-distance learning, which began in 1985 with "primitive VHS tapes and lectures and correspondence materials mailed in boxes."

But Liberty isn't the only school with enrollment growth to receive a Hobby Lobby donation. In 2013, Cal Baptist received a 21-acre property from the retailer valued at $5.65 million.

Hoogstra from CCCU says Cal Baptist's rapid growth isn't only from its generous Hobby Lobby gift. "What Cal Baptist has done has really looked at their context of California and what the majors and minors that people in this area would like to be educated in, so they can be employed."

Bob Fisher, president of Belmont, says the Tennessee Christian school more than tripled its first-time, first-year enrollment since fall 2001. Some of that increase, Fisher says, comes from offering more majors, increasing the number of programs from 58 in 2000 to 98 in 2017.

Flispart also picked Belmont, she says, because it offered a kinesiology major – a discipline not usually offered at smaller colleges; plus she wanted a school with higher enrollment than a few hundred in the freshman class.

Aside from degree offerings and perceived value, Hoogstra from CCCU says students choose a Christian college because they're looking for a school that matches their academic interest and faith. "People pick institutions for where their values match."

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