In an earlier blog post, I reported that public higher education enrollment shrank -4% between 2010 and 2019. In comparison, religious institutions only shrank -0.1%. What happens when we add the year 2020? We find that public university enrollment shrank by an astounding -8.4% between the fall of 2010 and 2020. In contrast, religious institutions, almost all of which are Christian, shrank only -1.4%. Those who write about a crisis in Christian higher education need to keep this comparison data in mind when discussing recent enrollment changes among American Christian institutions. The crisis in higher education enrollment is primarily occurring within public institutions (e.g., West Virginia University). Of course, whether certain private Christian institutions have an unsustainable habit of tuition discounting needs further research.
With this larger trend in mind, we can better understand Protestant Christian enrollment changes between 2021 and 2022. Since the 2022 Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) numbers for 2022 Fall enrollment of individual institutions are now available, I’ll provide some observations in this post about some interesting changes that are emerging among Protestant groupings of institutions.
2021-22 Enrollment Trends
The overall news is that 2022 enrollment at the 366 Protestant universities that demonstrate at least one empirical sign of Christian identity dropped by -1.1%. What is interesting is that most of this drop occurred among graduate student enrollment, which declined by -2.7%. This decline should not be shocking in a post-COVID healthy labor market. Much of this decline came from a reduction in online graduate degree-seeking. For example, online-heavy Grand Canyon University saw 2155 fewer graduate students, and the University of Cumberlands 1555 fewer.
In contrast, undergraduate enrollment only dropped -0.5%. To put this decline in context, it is helpful to recognize that due to overall birth rate declines for current college-age students, we should expect undergraduate enrollment declines for the foreseeable future unless America changes its immigration policies or American colleges and universities increase these numbers through international recruitment. A -0.5% decline in undergraduate enrollment for all Protestant institutions is actually surprisingly small.
Analysis by Institutional Categories and Partnerships
Unlike the change from 2020 to 2021 which saw significant enrollment drops among Mainline Protestant institutions (-5.9%) and Christian Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs (-9.2%), overall enrollment changes were not as drastic and were spread fairly evenly across sectors. Unfortunately for the Mainline and HBCUs that means they are not recovering from those earlier 2020–21 large percentage drops due to COVID. Still, the good news for Christian HBCUs is that their enrollment grew by 2.4%. Other enrollment changes by sector can be found below (noting that IACE and CCCU membership have significant overlap).
Table 1: Percentage increase or decline in enrollment from 2021 to 20221
Christian HBCUs +2.8% IACE +0.3% Mainline Protestant -0.7% Independent Low Church Protestant -1.8% CCCU -2.1%
As indicated, the International Alliance for Christian Education (IACE) institutions demonstrated small enrollment growth this past year (+0.3%). It should also be noted that the IACE picked up numerous new members such as formerly independent low-church Protestant institutions Liberty University and Grove City, and additional members who are also part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) as well.
The less than average enrollment decline of Mainline Protestant institutions this year (-0.7%) is largely attributable to Eastern University leaving the CCCU and thus being placed in the Mainline Protestant category. Eastern reported that its overall enrollment grew by 1,340 this past year with 1,200 of that growth taking place in graduate programs (an enrollment growth they attributed to their new low-cost online graduate programs). Without the addition of Eastern University, enrollment at Mainline Protestant institutions as a whole would have shrunk by -1.4%.
Independent low-Church Protestant institutions not in the IACE or CCCU saw a -1.8% decline mainly because of the reduction in online graduate degree-seeking mentioned earlier. For example, both large on-line providers Grand Canyon University (which declined in total enrollment by 1,256 students) and the University of the Cumberlands (with a 1,256-student decrease in total enrollment) suffered the largest numerical decline of all the institutions.
Overall CCCU enrollment dropped -2.1%, more than the average of Protestant groups (-1.1%). Interestingly, 0.6% of that -2.1% drop was driven by one set of denominational schools. One of the noteworthy trends is the significant decline in enrollment in Nazarene institutions this past year, all of which are part of the CCCU. Taken together, they all declined by -10% with every one of their institutions decreasing in enrollment. I would argue that any denominational college whose sponsoring denomination is facing a significant demographic shift, such as the Church of the Nazarene, will face the same fate. One wonders if name changes similar to that undertaken by Houston Baptist University to Houston Christian University will be in the future of Nazarene institutions to draw a wider audience of Christian students outside of the denomination to stave off further decline.
I should note that the 2022 CCCU enrollment figures do not yet indicate the lost CCCU enrollment due to two 2023 institutional closings (Alliance University and The King’s College) and the 2023 closing of some on-campus or satellite campuses with other institutions (Trinity International and Johnson University). That being said, it is important to realize that while such closures often make the headlines, the total enrollment loss of those institutions will be less than the total 2022 enrollment growth of two of the largest enrollment-increasing CCCU institutions this past year (Campbellsville University, which increased enrollment by 1,537 students and Southeastern University which increased its enrollment by 679 students). Oddly, Christian publications, such as CT, tend not to write growth stories and thus their constant reporting about closures creates a false sense of crisis. In contrast, Inside Higher Education is more likely to write accurately and positively about certain CHE enrollment trends.
Comparisons to 2021-22 Enrollments
Last year one could argue that institutions that do not take the operationalization of their Christian mission seriously, which as my forthcoming book will show, are largely Mainline Protestant institutions and Christian HBCUs, declined the most during COVID. This year, those groups stemmed their losses. Unfortunately, for both groups, their two-year enrollment declines from 2020 to 2022 are still over -6%.
In contrast, last year, one could argue that low-church institutions, both those part of the CCCU and IACE and those not part of these coalitions, are growing the most. In general, this year that is still the case with 20 of the top 25 enrollment increases coming at Assemblies of God, Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of God, Churches of Christ, or nondenominational institutions with only two Lutheran institutions, two Reformed/Presbyterian and one Methodist institution showing overall enrollment increases above 240 students.
Overall, as I said earlier, we should continue to expect a one to two percent undergraduate enrollment decline for the foreseeable future (and perhaps more) in light of the declining American birthrate. Thus, the key metric to determine the health of Christian higher education is not whether certain Christian institutions are closing, or a particular institution is experiencing enrollment decline but how the overall percentage decline of religious institutions compares to enrollment decline in public universities. To repeat, we know from the 2010 to 2020 enrollment numbers that enrollment at religious institutions as a whole is declining 7% less than public universities as a whole.
Within the Protestant sector itself, whether Christian colleges are declining or increasing in enrollment appears to be dependent upon certain issues such as denominational demographics, online presence, leadership, and particular university circumstances. It is those factors to which we should pay attention when discerning trends within Protestant higher education.
If you want to understand the different sectors of Christian higher education operationalize their Christian identity, I encourage you to pre-order our forthcoming book coming out November 21, 2023, Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide.
- The 2021 enrollment number for Edwards Waters University on IPEDS was so different from the historical pattern that I checked online sources. I found that the university reported to the local paper a 2021 enrollment of 1200 students instead of the 2871 reported on IPEDS. I used the number from the local newspaper.