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).
Thanks. Thinking globally does offer encouraging signs of what God is doing in Christian higher education. But here in the U.S., there is a special vulnerability to Christian colleges and universities because many are small with modest endowments and located outside of the main areas of population growth. When such schools drift from their Christian mission they often flounder. BTW: another casualty to add to your list is Finlandia University, a small ELCA Lutheran school in the remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan that announced it will close in 2023.
Thanks Mark. I’m not surprised about Finlandia. It has all the qualities I mentioned. ELCA institutions only engage in a limited operationalize of their Christian identity, the denomination is dying, the population is shrinking near its location and there are other stronger Christian institutions nearby in Grand Rapids and Holland. Not surprisingly, Hope College, which is thriving, has almost twice as many Lutheran students as RCA (https://hope.edu/offices/frost-research-center/institutional-research/data-resources/factbook/enrollment-data/enrollment-report-s2023.pdf).
Hi Perry, thanks for your insightful remarks as usual. One element not addressed in this article, however, is the rising tuition discount rates that have been employed by private institutions to prevent more drastic enrollment declines. As a result, declining net revenues have led to significant budget cuts at many of even the healthiest Christian colleges and universities. That fact, in addition to declining overall enrollment, has helped to foster a sense of alarm within U.S. Christian higher education.
Thanks! That’s an important point. Here’s the important data that proves your point: “Between 2009–10 and 2019–20, revenues from tuition and fees per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student increased by 29 percent at public institutions (from $6,320 to $8,160 in constant 2020–21 dollars) and 7 percent at private nonprofit institutions (from $21,630 to $23,210).” https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cud/postsecondary-institution-revenue. Of course, we know that most of that public revenue is going to a growing administrative class (and not to new humanities positions).
Thank you for this article! It was encouraging. My own university Oral Roberts University, has lost a bit in residential students, but gained enormously with online students. I think your point that universities that highlight their Christianity are the ones doing better is right on the money. Those that bite the secular apple in hopes of an expanded student body are cutting their throats. Student pay more, and travel further to attend a Christian school because it is Christian and can offer a vibrant Christian atmosphere, and Christ infused education. Otherwise why bother. That is the vibe I get talking to my students.
Thought-provoking and encouraging, Perry. Thank you for this! As we expand programming on our campus, we are continually and intentionally putting our Christ-centered identity at the missional core, not only in our HLC documentation, but in our hiring.