The sky is falling rhetoric tends to be overused when it comes to Christian higher education (CHE). This past month, one person tweeted upon learning that Trinity International University is discontinuing residential and in-person undergraduate education, “Christian higher ed is imploding.” This tweet was less reflective of empirical reality and more reflective of the struggles at the tweeter’s own institution.
In reality, CHE is growing around the world and maintaining enrollment better than secular universities in the United States. For example, in Africa Christian colleges and universities barely existed before 1990 (not counting Bible schools or seminaries). Now, there are over 100 colleges and universities with over 150,000 students (and likely more since my numbers are not current). Africa’s exploding population means those numbers will only increase. In America, CHE does face challenges, but these challenges are the same as those faced by all of American higher education. The American student population is shrinking in substantial ways. Yet, if one looks at the enrollment figures, enrollments are falling faster in public and for-profit private institutions than among American non-profit privates. Comparatively, non-profit private education, which includes almost all of CHE, is weathering the enrollment crisis better than other sectors.
This fact is often overlooked if one fails to do comparative research. For example, a 2020 article in CT bemoaned the fact that between 2014 to 2018 Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) institutions had lost a total of 3,000 students. A more recent article from CT last month used this same year range and lamented that “Sixty-five percent of schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges Universities (CCCU) saw traditional undergraduate enrollment drop between 2014 and 2018.” Unfortunately, CT is fostering an alarmist declination narrative by not doing its research (another 2020 CT article claimed CHE is in crisis). If one considers the total enrollment drop from 2010 to 2019 for religious institutions (almost all of which are Christian), there was only a 2,424 reduction in enrolled students, just 0.1% of 2010 total enrollment. In contrast, the total enrollment drop for the public sector for that same period was 638,524, or 4% of 2010 enrollment. Shrinking by 0.1% is hardly imploding or a crisis. I would like to see CT write that story (they don’t because subtlety doesn’t generate clicks).
Yes, the closing of Trinity International’s residential program is a reminder that some smaller CHE institutions will not survive in their present form. Beyond the general decline in college-age students that is accelerating in the United States, other reasons are amplifying the difficulties faced by these struggling Christian institutions. Often, such institutions are located where the general population—or the church population in particular—is declining more than average (IL, for instance, has lost population over the last decade). Furthermore, they usually face substantial competition (e.g., the Chicago area alone is home to six other CCCU institutions). In addition, the Walmartization of higher education means that larger institutions will benefit from economies of scale and smaller institutions will suffer and perhaps close while the larger Christian institutions absorb their students.
One other factor undermining three 100 year-old Catholic institutions that recently closed is that they did little to operationalize their Christian identity: Marymount California University, Holy Names University, and St. Gregory’s University.1 Why pay private school tuition for a middle-of-the-road university that is barely Catholic? Clearly, parents and students could not find answers to that question.
That being said, other Catholic institutions that do operationalize their Catholic identity still face difficulties. Institutions such as Saint Leo’s and Marymount University are making major cuts (including theology at Marymount University). Considering that Catholic identity is declining among the college-age population (from 26.6 percent of all students in 2010 to 20.8 in 2019), the increased pressure on Catholic institutions is hardly surprising. Protestants will face the same if their numbers continue to decline.
The coming enrollment decline will certainly result in more Christian university casualties, especially among American Catholic universities. Yet, it will also result in the shrinking or even death of secular institutions, perhaps even more so. Institutional deaths are sad and should be mourned, along with the tragic effect such deaths have upon faculty, staff, and students.
Still, Christians should be hopeful in Christ and accurate with their empirical assessments. American CHE is shrinking slightly but not near as much as secular higher education. Furthermore, it is growing tremendously in other countries around the world. Our African, Asian, and South American brothers and sisters likely will play a key role in the future strength of Christian CHE.2 That’s cause for further creativity and celebration.
- Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, Jessica Martin, and Scott Alexander, “Understanding the Diversity of Catholic Higher Education: A New Empirical Guide for Evaluating the Influence of Catholic Identity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 2023, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jssr.12815
- Joel C. Carpenter, Perry L. Glanzer and Nick Lantinga, eds., Christian Higher Education: A Global Reconnaissance (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).