By Chris Moon
Lincoln Christian University is entering the second year of a massive overhaul of its educational model. And it’s doing so with a mixed bag of early results.
Since eliminating all its non-ministry degree programs and focusing heavily on its seminary offerings—after years of lagging enrollment and finances—the university still isn’t hitting its enrollment goals.
Total enrollment this year is expected to reach 190.
“Disappointing, frankly,” said Silas McCormick, president of LCU, which was established in 1944. “We really need to grow that [enrollment] to 250 to make this work over the long term.”
But LCU is adapting its original plan to better fit how students want to take classes—more online and less in the classroom. And the school is righting its financial ship.
During the past year, LCU has cut its debt by more than half—to just $3 million—by selling off two large portions of its Illinois campus.
The school’s faculty got pay raises this fall, and the college’s new curriculum is more firmly in place.
Perhaps the best news is LCU remains in existence after its bold changes, in an environment where a growing number of Restoration Movement schools have closed.
“They [the closures] have opened everyone’s eyes to the reality of our times,” McCormick said. “You might need to do something different [to remain viable]. You can do something different.”
CHARTING A NEW COURSE
LCU in February 2022 announced sweeping changes to its educational model.
Enrollment at the college had dropped by 50 percent during the past decade, and LCU had been operating in the red for much of that time.
The university was nearing the end of the road. McCormick admitted as much in announcing changes to LCU’s model.
“The cumulative result is that while LCU could be here next year, and perhaps the year after that, if we do not do something now—while we still can—we will almost certainly not be here the year after that,” McCormick wrote to LCU stakeholders at the time.
The university went forward with its plan to eliminate its non-ministry degree programs. It retained its seminary offerings and just two bachelor’s-level programs—in Bible and theology and in Christian ministry.
The school also launched a new delivery model for its students. The plan was to offer classes online and, as frequently as possible, at local partner churches.
In doing so, the university hoped to reach more students without asking them to relocate to Lincoln, Ill., and also to free up the university to sell off portions of its campus to trim debt.
CHANGES TO THE PLAN
So far, the debt-reduction effort has been working.
The college sold its student apartments to a private developer and its chapel and athletic facilities to a local church. During the past year, the university reduced a $7.6 million loan with Christian Financial Resources to just $3 million.
McCormick said the university has a sales contract on yet another campus structure—a facilities building—and hopes to reduce its debt further.
LCU is seeing varied results in its other efforts, and it already is changing its original plan.
McCormick said LCU is finding students are more interested in taking fully online classes than in taking courses from LCU professors at local churches. McCormick said many of those classes have been populated mostly by non-degree-seeking students who are auditing those courses.
For example, one 15-week course offered at West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Ill., had 14 students in it, and every one of them was an auditor, McCormick said. Degree-seeking students seem to prefer the online format.
“That’s just where people voted with their feet,” he said, adding, “We adapted.”
‘THE RIGHT CALL’
Now, degree-seeking students at LCU are taking the bulk of their classes online.
“Everything that we’re offering now is available online,” McCormick said.
Meanwhile, most of the classes LCU offers at partnering churches or church camps are non-credit courses that cater to non-degree-seeking students. Those are offered through the Lincoln Christian Institute.
McCormick said LCU wants to remind constituent churches why they are supporting the college and to encourage other churches to support the school.
“It’s like a PBS pledge drive,” he joked.
But, McCormick said, the effort to bring seminary classes—in a non-credit format—to local churches also might inspire more people to consider vocational ministry. Getting a small taste of a seminary curriculum might whet their appetite for more.
McCormick said the college’s primary target today are students who want ministry degrees but who don’t want to leave their hometowns and churches to do so. Many churches today want to grow their own ministry staff from within their congregations, and LCU’s new model is designed to help them do that.
“I think that was the right call,” he said of LCU’s program changes. “I think that was the only call we could make.”
But enrollment continues to be a sore spot.
LCU enrolled 220 students last year. McCormick expected LCU’s official enrollment to drop to 190 this year.
McCormick said the school’s retention efforts have been successful. But new students are harder to come by.
“We need to do better than treading water,” he said.
McCormick said some people still think LCU is on the brink of closure—or has already closed—making student recruitment a challenge. The question is how quickly the university can correct that misperception and attract students into its newly formatted programs.
“Are we going to find enough of these folks to prove to people we are not dead?” he asked.
McCormick did say the university has gotten a boost in fundraising.
The school set a goal to raise $1.8 million last year. It ended up raising just less than $2 million.
In the process, LCU picked up some new contributors, including Southeast Christian Church in Louisville—one of the largest in the Restoration Movement.
“There are a number of ways we really have made forward progress,” McCormick said.
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.