By Jim Nieman
Christian colleges and universities were already under significant stress even before the COVID-19 tsunami came crashing over our nation. In fact, two of them—Cincinnati Christian University and Nebraska Christian College—have closed during the past year. We decided to take the temperature of institutions across the United States by asking college presidents to share their year-over-year attendance figures and to describe the challenges they are facing.
It might surprise some to learn that a handful of the 16 colleges and universities that shared their data with us actually saw their enrollment increase from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
“Enrollment is up,” said Boise (Idaho) Bible College president Derek Voorhees. “New student enrollment reverses a 10-year slide . . . and gets us back to new student counts we had five years ago.”
“Our retention over the summer break was very strong,” he added. “Students who went home [due to COVID-19 closures] to finish out last semester without hesitation came back to campus this semester.”
At Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing, Mich., enrollment rose from 151 to 170.
“We have seen a 26 percent increase in dorm occupancy this fall compared to last year. Much of this increase is from the freshman class,” said GLCC president Larry Carter. “It appears that, unlike what [the students] experienced last spring, they did not want to miss the blessing of being able to attend college in person.”
John Derry said the number of traditional students at Dallas Christian College grew from 131 to 149—with an especially strong increase among new traditional students (ages 18 to 22)—while the school’s overall online enrollment is expected to remain unchanged. Derry, DCC’s vice president for academic affairs (he also is president emeritus of Hope International University), stressed that all data is preliminary until filed with the Department of Education; the deadline for that is Oct. 15.
At William Jessup University, Rocklin, Calif., overall enrollment grew from 1,736 to 1,843 (from 1,254 to 1,291 among undergrads, and from 482 to 552 among graduate students).
“Our enrollment and institution are strong, with the primary challenges of COVID-19 being the reduction of 150 residential spaces to accommodate the need for quarantine and isolation capacities on campus,” said Jessup president John Jackson.
Summit Christian College in Gering, Neb.—where the coronavirus has had little impact—saw its student population increase from 30 last fall to 40 this fall (which includes part-time, full-time, and online “Bridge” program students). “Our campus has opened, and our students are enjoying relatively normal campus life,” according to president David K. Parrish. “We have eliminated all operational debt and are currently experiencing strong fiscal stability.”
Milligan University in Tennessee, meanwhile, is experiencing record enrollment of 1,347 this fall, which is “certainly a number to celebrate,” said president Bill Greer. The increase, though slight—only 12 more students than last year—was also something of a surprise.
“Throughout the past several months, we prepared for the real possibility of a decrease in enrollment, a decrease that most experts in higher education expected to occur,” Greer said.
The student populations at two other institutions remained constant.
Hope International University in Fullerton, Calif., saw an increase of 3 students—from 1,153 in fall 2019 to 1,156 this fall—but those numbers don’t tell the story.
“Our traditional program is down about 6 percent, but our online and graduate programs have risen about 7 percent,” said president Paul H. Alexander. While every institution switched to a form of virtual (or online) learning in the spring, Hope International University is the only one that is not offering in-person learning this fall.
“Hopefully we will be returning to normal operations in the spring,” Alexander said.
At Carolina Christian College, Winston-Salem, N.C., “Numbers did not change from last year,” said president LaTanya Tyson. Student enrollment was 80 last fall and is 80 this fall. “We did expect an increase [in enrollment] but fell short due to concerns of parents in the midst of this pandemic.”
Tyson said funds extended to CCC by the U.S. Small Business Administration through the CARES Act in the spring “assisted the college in its technological growth and program availability.”
Several other college presidents echoed their appreciation for those federal funds that were approved to help deal with the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
“Had it not been for the CARES Act funds and Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds, this would have been an even more devastating time,” said John Derry of Dallas Christian.
“Because of the government’s reaction to COVID-19,” said Larry Carter of Great Lakes Christian, “we have been blessed to receive substantial aid in financial grants that have helped us to begin the year in better shape than last year.”
Lincoln (Ill.) Christian University saw “a total enrollment drop of 55 students [from 679 to 624] . . . in one academic cycle, [which is] obviously quite problematic from a financial perspective,” said president Silas McCormick. “We are working very hard to manage our budget in light of this drop.” Still, he expects LCU will finish the year with a budget surplus “as a result of funds received under both the Payroll Protection Program and the CARES Act.”
However, even with the help of those federal funds, McCormick said, “cash flow impact remains a concern . . . [and] the long-term financial viability of Lincoln Christian University is far from secure.”
McCormick is hopeful the rather large decline in enrolled students is “the result of a unique set of variables at a unique time.” Two of those factors were an extra-large graduating class and no international students this year due to travel restrictions.
Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Mo., saw a 6 percent enrollment drop, from 678 last fall to 638 this fall. Students pursuing degrees fully online, however, increased by 13 percent. President Matt Proctor attributed some of the overall decline to the loss of “key recruiting opportunities” such as campus tours, Christ In Youth events, and church camps. Other college presidents said COVID-19 hampered their schools’ recruiting efforts in similar ways.
“The good news,” said Proctor, “we’re back on campus, and we expect to end 2020-21 as our 10th year debt-free.”
Other institutions to see enrollment declines from last fall to this fall included these schools:
• Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Mo. (down from 198 students in fall 2019 to 175 students this fall). “We also ended up with 36 fewer dormitory students than the year before,” said president David Fincher; he explained that some students who became online students in the spring chose to remain as online students. “It is unclear if they will come back to campus or not when things are more stable in society.”
• Johnson University Tennessee and Johnson University Florida in Knoxville and Kissimmee, respectively (from 1,271 to 1,241). “We had a less than 2 percent overall decrease in enrollment, with slight increases in enrollment on the Tennessee campus and online programs,” said president Tommy Smith. “We had about 25 new students on the Tennessee campus who decided at the last minute to delay enrollment because of COVID-19 concerns.” Retention on the Tennessee campus was excellent, however. “It is evident that students wanted to come back to campus for face-to-face instruction and the college community experience, even if it included the restrictions related to the pandemic. In light of the 20 to 25 percent decrease in enrollment that many were predicting, we are very pleased with enrollment this fall semester.”
• Kentucky Christian University in Grayson (from 719 to 685). “We are pleased that our total enrollment for fall 2020 remained at 95 percent of our record enrollment of fall 2019,” said president Terry Allcorn. “Since we were not able to recruit in the typical manners . . . we quickly adjusted to . . . video conference meetings . . . and FaceTime walking tours with prospective students. We are anxious to get back into the churches to make sure they know about the educational opportunities at KCU.”
• Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, N.C. (from 199 to 166). “Due to a large graduating class this year and COVID-19 restrictions where we could not recruit in churches or schools, our enrollment has dropped,” said president John Maurice.
• St. Louis Christian College in Florissant, Mo. (from 84 to 77 total students; or from 74 to 66 full-time equivalent students). “We are able to confirm 10 students who were accepted and coming as freshmen this year . . . canceled directly related to COVID-19. We can’t be sure of others who were scheduled to attend but withdrew in the final month,” said president Terry E. Stine. “Fortunately, general income from congregations and individuals has remained solid, but being a tuition-driven college, the lack of students puts us in a fragile situation financially.”
• Point University in West Point, Ga. (from 2,389 to 1,949). The pandemic appears to have interrupted a strong growth trajectory at Point, according to Stacy Bartlett, chief advancement and enrollment officer. A sizeable number of the Point’s students are minority and/or low-income. A very high percentage of Point’s students receive some federal or institutional financial assistance; among first-time, full-time freshmen, it is 100 percent (with 66 percent of those students receiving a Pell grant). “We are working hard to find ways to connect with students who did not enroll this year and to reach the highest need and most at-risk students for the coming year,” Bartlett said. “We, like many others in higher ed, worry that these students will be most adversely impacted, and we want to do all we can to reach and serve them well.”
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Derry said amid “a perfect storm” of challenges that institutions of higher learning are facing—which now includes COVID-19—“college administrators and trustees are being called upon to make decisions today that may very well determine the survival of their schools.”
“We should not think that post-pandemic, everything will be OK,” Derry added. “[These schools] need our prayers and support.”
He wasn’t the only administrator to express concern about what the future holds for Christian colleges and universities.
“Our church support has remained consistent throughout the pandemic,” said GLCC’s Larry Carter. “It remains to be seen if our partners, especially churches, will be able to continue the same level of support while recovering from the coronavirus shutdown.”
CCCB’s David Fincher added, “Our supporters and staff are doing their part by keeping donations strong and keeping expenses down while we wait for student enrollment to recover.”
Johnson University’s Tommy Smith is concerned that enrollment challenges could roll into next year, “especially if the pandemic continues through the spring semester.”
And throughout this pandemic, and into the foreseeable future, the need for Christian workers will only continue to grow.
“I receive notices almost weekly of ministers who are retiring either because of COVID or [because it] was already planned before the pandemic struck,” said SLCC’s Terry Stine. “Many congregations are looking for trained individuals to staff their programs, and it can take over a year to find someone qualified and willing to move. The harvest truly is ripe, but the workers are few.”
Maintaining a focus on raising up workers is key, agrees Lincoln Christian’s Silas McCormick.
“I believe LCU’s customer is the worldwide church and that our mission is to supply the church with servant leaders—and I’m talking all types, not just preachers and missionaries, but counselors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and doctors,” McCormick said. “The church desperately needs leaders who have the biblical and theological foundation they need to serve and to lead for Christ. We’re doing this at LCU, but it isn’t easy.
“Conversations about politics, race, and human sexuality are hard. There are substantial generational gaps in perspective, and knowledge gaps in terms of theology. Additionally, incoming students sometimes balk at devoting significant credit hours to biblical and theological study. Constituents sometimes balk when they hear that we are proactively trying to help our students who are interested in social justice find an appropriate foundation for justice in righteousness.
“In a world where our churches are nearly as divided as our society, it remains to be seen whether we will successfully bridge this gap or fall into it,” McCormick said. “In watching other schools scramble to secure revenue by altering the nature of who they are, what they do, or who they recruit, we at LCU have doubled down on our identity.”
“A leader can never provide certainty, but he can provide clarity,” Ozark Christian’s Matt Proctor said. “In the midst of COVID-19, we don’t have a detailed map forward. But we do have an unwavering compass: Ozark Christian College exists to train men and women for Christian service. The harvest is still plentiful and the workers are still few. So—come Hell or high water or hairy, scary viruses—we will keep training workers for the harvest field.”
“It’s one thing to have a mission statement, yet quite another to make sure it is the reference point for all actions taken,” Derry shared. “A compelling vision is powerful, but it must be based on the reason the school exists in the first place. Our college leaders are to be commended for keeping their eyes on the mission and not compromising core values when the going gets tough.”
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.