Sometimes it is interesting to take stock of the field of Christian higher education. A research team I lead recently put together a spreadsheet of all the Protestant institutions in America that require students to take at least one course that addresses the Christian tradition (and not simply religion generally). There are 249 such Protestant institutions in the United States. We also gathered their IPEDs student enrollment figures (the latest at the time was for the 2019-20 school year). Overall, there are a bit over half a million undergraduates attending these institutions (521,476).
The top 23 of these institutions enroll approximately two-fifths of those students (220,547). As one can see from the table below, all these universities but one represent low-church traditions with the majority identifying as Baptist, Evangelical, or Interdenominational/ Nondenominational. One cannot help but conclude that the future of Christian higher education is low church. Certainly, it reveals that we need to encourage robust vision of a low-church vision of the Christian university, especially for students who may be taking their degree on-line (like at three of the first four institutions).
The same proves even more so with graduate education enrollment (total 223,897). The top 24 institutions have a total enrollment of 155,067 that accounts for over two-thirds of all graduate students enrolled at these Christian institutions. Again, most of the institutions are low-church although the Missouri-Synod Lutherans have a significant presence on the list with three urban institutions.
They Have Numbers But Do They Have Theological Substance?
At different times, I have heard George Marsden, Mark Noll and James Davison Hunter all question whether low-church institutions will provide a strong theological contribution (what I call Christ animating learning). Historically, these institutions have often interpreted “Christian” to mean providing a moral atmosphere and engaging in service to society (what I call the Christ added vision).
On the undergraduate level, however, there is cause for hope. All but two (91%) require two require Christian courses and 14 of the 23 require three or more. Furthermore, 18 of the 23 institutions (78%) use Christian theological reasoning in their conduct code. In contrast, high church Protestant denominations dominate our list of largely secularized institutions that do not even require a Christian course or use Christian theological reasoning in their conduct codes. In undergraduate education, we probably should be most concerned about the future numbers and Christian vitality of high church Protestant institutions.
Yet, graduate education should be a concern for all Protestant institutions, even those with robust Christian missions. If a recent analysis I undertook with my graduate student is any indication, the growing forms of Protestant graduate education are certainly lacking in this area. These low-church Protestant institutions may be growing, but it is not clear they really offer graduate education that is all that different from pluralistic universities. Low-church graduate education will need to figure out how Christ can animate graduate education, if Christian higher education is going to prosper.