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In a recent blog post, I addressed the sloppy, alarmist reporting about the state of Christian higher education in the United States. The actual trajectory of religious higher education between 2010 and 2019 involved only minuscule decline (-0.1%) and that decline was much less than the -4% enrollment decline among secular universities. In other words, the major losers of the last dozen years of enrollment decline in higher education have been secular universities. In this post, I add to that analysis, by examining two things: 1) 2019-20 enrollment numbers and 2) Protestant Christian higher education enrollment before COVID, Fall of 2019, compared to the most recent year for which individual institutional data is available, Fall of 2021.

First, the enrollment story from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 found in the relevant U.S. Digest of Education Statistics table simply reinforces my earlier claim. In that year alone, public universities saw a -4.4% decline, while religious institutions, almost all of which are Christian, only saw a -1.2% enrollment decline. Religious institutions continue to bear the overall enrollment headwinds much better than public institutions (and it would be nice if CT wrote that story instead of repeating its false alarmist narrative).

Although aggregate 2021 data is not yet available, I gathered institutional enrollment data for 347 institutions Protestant universities that our research team recently determined still demonstrate at least one empirical sign of Christian identity in administrative decisions. The data came from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data (IPEDs) site. I then compared enrollment data (both graduate and undergraduate) from the Fall entering class of 2019 and 2021.1

In light of the well-known effects of COVID, I expected around a 1 to 2% decline driven by Christian HBCUs and Mainline Protestant institutions but upheld by growth in online degree programs. What I found was largely consistent with my initial hypothesis, although the overall decline was not as serious as I expected. Despite COVID, the overall enrollment at these 347 institutions dropped by only -0.7% between 2019 and 2021. Moreover, two particular sectors even grew during this time.

As I anticipated from other studies I had come across, private Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that still demonstrate some Christian commitment as a whole saw their enrollment drop the most (-9.2%). The only private HBCU institutions with at least one empirical marker of Christian identity that grew during the COVID years were a couple in Virginia—Virginia University of Lynchburg (+288) and Virginia Union University (+279).

Next, Mainline Protestant institutions as a whole saw their enrollments drop by -5.9%. As I will demonstrate in a forthcoming book coming out later this year, this drop is not surprising, since Mainline Protestant institutions are largely stagnating, shrinking, and/or secularizing with only rare exceptions. A few winners during COVID were Bethel University, TN (+892), High Point University (+530), Shenandoah University (+496), and Concordia University, St. Paul (+408).

Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU) institutions saw their enrollments drop by less than half the rate as Mainline institutions (-2.4%). In fact, there was noteworthy growth among some CCCU institutions such as Baylor University (+2,593, having a national championship basketball team always helps), Colorado Christian University (+885), and Columbia International University (+689).

What is also interesting is that a certain group of CCCU institutions saw their enrollments drop even less. CCCU institutions that are also members of the International Alliance for Christian Education (IACE), saw their enrollments drop by only -1.5% during this time with some institutions experiencing growth such as Anderson University, SC (+465), California Baptist University (+444), and Dordt University (+237).  The other 11 members of IACE that fit my definition of a multidisciplinary university and are not in the CCCU actually saw their enrollments grow by +0.2%.

Finally, there is a group of 54 independent institutions that are not aligned with any of these groups that I call low-church independent universities because they are almost all Baptist, Churches of Christ, Nondenominational, or Seventh Day Adventist. This group saw 6.1% enrollment growth thanks largely to tremendous growth among the online giants in this area. For example, in those two years, Liberty University reported growth of +9123 students (an enrollment number that is in dispute and the subject of a current court case), Grand Canyon University +6861 students, and University of the Cumberlands +2306 students. COVID policies likely led some students to simply forgo in-person education and move to online options. Whether this trend continues as 2022 enrollment numbers become available remains to be seen.

Another noteworthy finding is that similar to the CCCU/IACE trends noted earlier, conservative low-church independent institutions demonstrated the most growth during those COVID years. In addition to Liberty and Grand Canyon, substantial enrollment growth occurred at William Carey University (+698); The Master’s University (+429), Southwestern Adventist University (+334).

Finally, if one separates undergraduate and graduate education enrollment numbers, one finds another important trend. Graduate enrollment in Protestant Christian institutions actually grew during COVID by +4.6%. It was undergraduate enrollment that declined by -2.8% and resulted in an overall loss of enrollment. Again, it is likely that COVID contributed to people having time to pursue online graduate degrees, while also reducing undergraduate enrollment.

Despite the demise of the COVID challenge, the enrollment headwinds facing higher education as a whole will not go away. The great employment market has dented undergraduate education demand for 2021-23, and the ongoing demographic decline among college-age students will continue to tighten the supply of 18-23 year-old students.

Still, I should repeat the main story. Religious higher education enrollment declined -1.2% between the two key COVID year enrollment markers (Fall, 2019 and Fall, 2020), which was not near as much as public higher education (-4.4%). Moreover, one must recognize that enrollment decline between the Fall of 2019 and the fall of 2021 was most pronounced among certain sectors of religious institutions, such as HBCUs and Mainline Protestant institutions. In contrast, enrollment at conservative Protestant institutions held fairly steady. Furthermore, graduate and online Christian higher education actually demonstrated significant enrollment growth between those years.

The key question is whether these forms of education actually include much that is Christian. Hopefully, educational leaders will continue to think creatively and redemptively about how Christ can better enhance our graduate and online education options. Perhaps that can be a task for the Vice-Presidents for Christian Mission that Protestant institutions need to place on their Executive Leadership teams.

In the meantime, I look forward to seeing the 2022 stats and will undertake a new analysis when they are ready. That way, we can avoid silly, alarmist rhetoric about Christian higher education in America.


  1. If one wishes to replicate this study, one needs to be careful to include the new 2021 online versions of certain Christian colleges in the 2019 numbers. For example, for comparable 2019 Abilene Christian University, Indiana Wesleyan, and Azusa Pacific University enrollment numbers, one must include both the 2021 version of those institutions and their new online versions that are now separate entities with separate names and IPEDS designations (Abilene Christian University-Online, Indiana Wesleyan University National & Global and Los Angeles Pacific University). There may actually be a separate 2021 online program of a Christian university that uses a unique name that I missed.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.


  • Gordon Moulden says:

    The small private Protestant (not mainline) institution where I teach in Canada also experience growth during the 2021 academic year despite the alarmist rhetoric preparing everyone for bad news. And yes, it was led by graduate programs. The significant impact of the pandemic in academia was not so much financial but pedagogic: as faculty needed to learn, in a very short time, how to do assessment and conduct entire courses online, their technological skills grew, as did those of many students. As in instructor, it is certainly NOT the same experience as teaching in person, which is so much more natural and so much richer, being able to interact in the same room and communicate more easily. I know both faculty and students who appreciate the new option, but for many, in person is far better, and I do wonder how many students we lost across the board (in both secular and Christian institutions) because the experience is not the same–not only the lack of classroom interaction, but also not the same access to facilities nor the same opportunities to develop new relationships and grow as you leave home to live in an on-campus environment.

  • Worried Prof says:

    This is fascinating. One thing to consider is this: most of those Christian colleges are not based squarely in major cities — heavily secular and politically very liberal — and thus are not nearly as susceptible to one side of the culture wars currently raging (and indeed, many Christian families will choose to send their kids to such colleges in no small part because they are refuge from the ‘woke’ ‘leftist’ enemies). Thus their locations partly insulate them from many polarizing issues. This also suggests how wrong (even dishonest) the leadership at my evangelical college, in Seattle, has been about the real factors contributing to our huge enrollment declines of especially the past 2-3 years, which have led to 40% cuts. Their talking points have always been about the broader national trends of enrollment/ pandemic, never willing to take responsibility for how our LGBTQ policy, double-down on twice by our Board, and recently the subject of several lawsuits and much negative PR, is obviously affecting our enrollments. We were one of the strongest (in academic reputation) Christian colleges around, but being in Seattle, and dealing with the internal (to Christendom’s) strife over LGBTQ issues and our local cancel culture, has ruined our university, perhaps (I fear) permanently.