Falling birth rates, negative media portrayals, and changing student preferences have presented stark challenges to leaders of Christian universities in the 21st century. However, many institutions have adapted and increased their student numbers.
The most comprehensive public domain data on enrollment is from the federal government’s office of post-secondary education. This includes enrollment for over 90 percent of CCCU institutions for the years 2002 to 2016 (the latest year of publicly available data). Philip Truscott, a sociologist and an associate professor at Southwest Baptist University (Bolivar, Missouri), used this data to calculate the rate of growth for CCCU institutions and interviewed leaders from some of the fastest-growing Christian universities to learn the stories behind their success.
Arizona Christian University
From 2002 to 2016, Arizona Christian University (ACU) increased its enrollment from 280 students to 820 (a growth factor of 2.9). At capacity at its current campus, ACU announced plans in November 2018 to relocate to the former campus of Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, which will more than triple classroom building space.
ACU President Len Munsil noted a number of changes that contributed to ACU’s growth. “We transitioned from a Bible college to a Christian liberal arts university by adding a humanities-based CORE curriculum that is integrated with 18 hours of biblical studies, [resulting in] a Bible minor for all students, and added majors in political science, communication, biology, and psychology,” he says.
Munsil noted that ACU’s recruitment success has depended on affinity marketing, and the school celebrates its status as “a covenantal conservative university that exists to train Christians to be influential leaders.” ACU has also increased minority enrollment from 10 percent to 40 percent.
ACU is part of a growing trend of universities trying to reignite interest in the great works of world literature through its CORE Christian liberal arts program. The program uses a cohort-based, living-learning model; all students in a major take their CORE courses together, ensuring a strong social bond over their college years.
Tracy Munsil, associate professor of political science, led the CORE program development committee: “The ACU CORE is unique within American higher education – seeking to reclaim the liberal arts for the Christian tradition by training students to consider the great ideas of human history within the biblical worldview framework and to use this rich understanding of the human experience to transform culture with the truth of God.”
The program begins with the first-year experience – two courses that introduce students to the ACU community and provide biblical worldview training. After that, students take four humanities courses during their sophomore and junior years. “The courses span human history,” the ACU website notes. “Students read and discuss original texts to consider how human beings in other times and cultures understood their world and answered the big questions of life – about God, about what it means to be human, about purpose and meaning, about truth, beauty, justice, and goodness.”
California Baptist University
California Baptist University (CBU) increased its enrollment from 2,165 in 2002 to 10,486 in 2018 (a growth factor of 4.8). Mark Wyatt, vice president for marketing and communication, said CBU has added a number of new professional programs as part of its growth strategy.
Since the Great Recession, increasing numbers of students have been choosing majors with close links to career paths. CBU’s College of Nursing offers degrees from the bachelor’s level up to a doctorate in nursing practice. It also offers two master’s degrees: one for students with a bachelor’s in nursing and an entry-level one for those who took a different major. CBU’s College of Engineering includes a blend of traditional programs (such as civil engineering and mechanical engineering) and others linked to specific careers (such as biomedical engineering and construction management). There are 10 different engineering programs in total, many of which have the important hallmark of the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET).
An interesting career-course connection is part of CBU’s aviation science department, launched in 2013. It teaches students flight and aviation management as they pursue such careers as airport manager, commercial pilot, and a 21st-century job: “unmanned aviation systems pilot.” The department has “pilot pathway” agreements with over half a dozen commercial airlines.
As part of its spiritual development program, CBU includes small groups called FOCUS (First-Year Orientation for Christian University Success). The groups are required for freshmen and undergraduate transfer students; they are usually led by seniors trained by spiritual life staff. Worship in large groups has been facilitated by the construction of a new arena, though its 5,000+ seating capacity is still not sufficient to accommodate all CBU students in a single service.
CBU has included the Great Commission in Matthew 28 as part of a statue of a globe – known as the Kugel – that serves as a literal touchstone for students. They first lay hands on it during their freshman orientation week, and they touch it again on graduation day, when they’re dressed in their cap-and-gown regalia, prepared to go out into the world.
Colorado Christian University
Colorado Christian University (CCU) increased from 1,801 students in 2002 to 7,032 in 2016 (a growth factor of 3.9). President Don Sweeting credits three factors: a clear brand, multiple delivery systems, and intentional discipleship.
CCU’s clear brand is as a conservative, Christian university. “Our educational model consists of three pillars: competence, character, and Christ-centered faith. This model has been largely abandoned by many colleges and universities. But there is life and vitality in it,” Sweeting says. “We aspire to be a Christ- centered university. We are not leaning away from this, but leaning into it.”
The university also has two colleges to deliver education: the College of Undergraduate Studies and the College of Adult and Graduate Studies. One appeals to the traditional learner, the other to the non-traditional learner, Sweeting says. The third factor is intentional discipleship, he says: “In our traditional undergraduate program, students are accepted to CCU only after providing a pastoral recommendation, a personal testimony, and signing a lifestyle covenant.”
Once students arrive, CCU has an intentional program to keep their spiritual fire burning. Freshmen attend weekly spiritual formation groups. On Wednesday nights, mandatory discipleship groups of only five students are led by seniors. Over their years at CCU, students must attend 180 chapel services and complete 180 service hours. In their first semester, freshmen journey from CCU’s campus to the alpine beauty of Frontier Ranch on the edge of Gunnison National Forest for a spiritual formation retreat that also includes seniors, who are contemplating their mission in the world after university. “Families who come to us want to know that their children’s faith will grow stronger in our community. Colorado Christian University takes its middle name seriously in everything we do,” Sweeting says.
Jim McCormick, vice president for student life, says several enrollment innovations happened after CCU combined its student life and enrollment departments in 2008. CCU began attending Christian higher education fairs and has fostered relationships with more than 400 partner high schools, most of which are Christian. The high schools invite CCU representatives to speak at chapel services and on retreats, and 144 of them have classes that are part of CCU’s dual credit program. CCU considers the 4,700 high school students taking these dual credit courses to be among the most promising admission candidates.
As CCU’s student body has grown, so has its diversity; while Colorado’s population is 87 percent Caucasian, more than a third of CCU students come from non-Caucasian racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Concordia University Irvine
Concordia University Irvine (CUI) grew from 1,800 students in 2002 to 4,299 in 2016 (up 139 percent). Undergraduate enrollment has increased by about 500; growth in graduate and adult degree completion programs accounts for the rest.
CUI attributes its growth to curriculum change and development. It has added new undergraduate majors such as economics, physics, nursing, and graphic design, as well as emphases such as kinesiology, commercial music, and business data analytics. New graduate programs include coaching and athletics administration, counseling, organizational leadership, international studies, educational technology, school counseling, and healthcare administration; a doctorate in educational leadership launched in 2014. Many graduate programs are offered fully online.
In 2010, CUI redesigned its general education curriculum and introduced a core program. As Peter Senkbeil, provost and executive vice president, explains, “Most undergraduate general ed programs offer a wide range of choice. We went in the opposite direction.”
In the first year, students take a pair of courses at the heart of the debate over human origins: theology and biology. They also take linked courses in philosophy and math, as well as history and literature. The history/literature pairing is divided into pre- and post-Reformation courses. The courses involve students studying primary texts, rather than filtering them through a textbook.
While some might expect criticism of this mandatory curriculum, CUI’s student surveys say otherwise. Students completing the National Survey of Student Engagement showed improvement in seven out of eight areas compared to CUI students who took the survey prior to the core program.
CUI has also taken steps to recruit and serve an increasingly diverse population and to provide innovative diversity-related experiences. CUI hosts an annual Latina Leadership conference aimed at helping Spanish-speaking high school female students plan for college. Additionally, students experience an academic version of the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days through CUI’s unique Around-the-World Semester®. Students complete 18 units in eight courses and earn a minor in global cultural studies.
Senkbeil says that all of CUI’s programs incorporate its identity as a Christ-centered university, even for students from differing faith backgrounds: “Stressing the Gospel can lead to enrollment success. We don’t make students sign a statement of faith to come here. We welcome Muslim, Buddhist, and agnostic students who want to attend; while they’re here, we expose them to the Gospel.”
(West Point, GA)
When Dean Collins started out as interim president of what was then Atlanta Christian College in 2006, survival was the main goal. The institution had limited course offerings and 423 students; its facilities were outdated and in need of a major overhaul. A firm of consultants estimated that it would take $17 million to make facilities fit for its current number of students, as well as a $50 million investment to accommodate 1200 students.
Faced with these daunting numbers, Collins persuaded his board of trustees to announce a plan to move to a new location. The Atlanta Journal Constitution carried a small story on the decision that thrust the college into a furious dating game with cities across Georgia.
The search finally ended through an inspired idea from a local Christian business leader, J. Smith Lanier. He phoned Collins and told him about a disused company headquarters in West Point, Georgia. The 77,000 square foot building could accommodate 1,000 students. A $20 million capital campaign and an award-winning design helped pave the way for a massive rebranding of the institution. Since the college’s first location was in East Point, Georgia, and its new location was in West Point, its name was duly changed to “Point University.”
Prior to the move to West Point, Point’s leadership team had recognized there was a large market for Georgians who had some college credit but had never completed their degree. Point launched new course offerings with classes between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to accommodate adults who worked full-time or had paused their college degree to start a family. Point hoped for moderate degree completion program growth; it went from zero students to over 1,000 in four years.
There has been similar development of Point’s online offerings. The university invested in developing new “High Tech – High Touch” course offerings. The term “High Touch” is Point’s term for intense interactivity. Since 2014, Point has grown from six online undergraduate degree programs to over 40 online undergraduate and graduate programs, with more in development.
Collins envisioned a university that served a broader, more diverse population of students. Accordingly, all promotional materials were changed to show a university that welcomed such a future. Today, almost half of the student body is comprised of ethnic minority students – which, Point’s leadership points out, reflects the Kingdom of God – and Point University students also reflect geographic, economic, social, gender, and faith diversity.
Today Collins, no longer an “interim,” oversees a very different institution from the one he took over. Extinction seems unlikely. Point University enrolled 1,986 students in 2016 – a fivefold increase since 2002.
Southeastern University’s (SEU) peak enrollment in the 2000s was 3,075 students, and, like many other institutions, it faced challenges following the Great Recession. By 2011, enrollment had fallen to just over 2,500. In February 2011, SEU welcomed its new president, Kent Ingle, who set the course to change SEU’s direction dramatically.
New construction added 300,000 square feet of new buildings to the campus, even as SEU kept tuition under $25,000. Another innovation was the addition of a football team and other athletic programs. Despite the football team’s new status, it already has had four consecutive conference championships since 2014.
Currently, SEU enrolls students from 33 different countries and foreign territories through admissions counselors with diverse language skills, particularly Spanish. The school has educational partnerships in Uganda, Kenya, and Sweden. In addition to SEU’s welcome of foreign students, it offers 40 study abroad opportunities. As an institution, SEU stresses the need to help students find their “Divine Design.” All freshmen and transfer students must belong to a weekly First Year Experience (FYE) group, which focuses on Christ, culture, and the community.
All of this has led to massive enrollment growth for SEU, which welcomed 8,759 students in the fall of 2018, up from 2,546 students in 2011. However, explaining this growth as a formula involving “football + new construction + admissions advertising” would be wrong – after all, other institutions could follow similar strategies with very different results.
Ingle describes his leadership approach in his book Framework Leadership: Position Yourself for Transformational Change. The four keys to developing this framework include: listening to the people, auditing the context, clarifying the goals, and developing visionary alignment.
Ingle says SEU’s growth can be attributed to the functional framework, which addressed streams of enrollment, streams of revenue, accessibility, and affordability. Out of this came the impetus to build out facilities on campus, increase the athletic programming, and create affordable educational opportunities. Ingle’s leadership concepts provide the blueprint for the strategies that have helped SEU’s enrollment take off.
William Jessup University
The architect Frank Gehry’s name is linked to some of the most famous modern buildings in the world, but he also inadvertently designed the buildings for a Christian university: William Jessup. The happy accident is the result of Jessup’s purchase of a campus that originally housed the Herman Miller Corporation. The new building was part of a bold move the university completed in 2004, when Jessup transferred from San Jose to greater Sacramento. But the Great Recession caused an enrollment drop in 2007 and 2008, prompting concern that the move might have a negative impact.
However, several growth strategies helped Jessup reverse the trend and become the one of the fastest-growing CCCU institutions: After having fewer than 250 students in 2002, the absolute numbers in enrollment climbed to 1,695 students in 2018. Jessup President John Jackson, who began his presidency in 2011, says he was determined to communicate a three-part message to prospective students: “Jessup would help them thrive spiritually, obtain a great liberal arts education, and become exceptionally employable.”
It is a message he repeats often. He spends half of his weekends each year speaking at one of the 1,200 churches in relationship with Jessup. Jessup and its students have strong connections with local churches. More than 80 percent of students report weekly church attendance, and about 60 percent of Jessup’s applicants come from church relationships.
Additionally, as part of its spiritual formation program, Jessup requires small group and chapel attendance as well as a service requirement. The spiritual life emphasis extends all the way through graduation day, when Jessup administrators give students a symbol designed to evoke a spirit of service: a monogrammed towel evoking John 13:5, when Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
Jessup has also improved its sophomore retention rates. The university’s academic team developed robust programming to serve students who were struggling. It also added new undergraduate programs in computer science, theatre, visual and fine arts, biology, and kinesiology. The sophomore retention rate climbed from just over 60 percent before 2011 to 83 percent today.
Additionally, Jessup added master’s degrees in leadership, business, counseling psychology, sports management, and education, as well as a separate master’s in teaching that focuses on pedagogy. As Jackson says, “Our success has come from a deep integration into the regional spiritual and economic landscape. We know which degree programs will be most highly valued by our local church, business, and educational partners.”
Philip Truscott is an associate professor of sociology at Southwest Baptist University (Bolivar, MO). He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Surrey and an M.A. in politics and social administration from the University of Edinburgh.