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How these Christian colleges handled record enrollments during the COVID-19 pandemic

Northwestern College
Students attend a commencement ceremony at Northwestern College held at the school's football stadium in Orange City, Iowa in May 2020. |

As colleges nationwide struggled with pandemic-related closures in the spring of 2020, Greg Christy, the president at Northwestern College in Iowa, said he didn't know what to expect. He anticipated that fewer students would enroll at his school for in-person classes during the reopening in the fall of 2020.

With that prediction in mind, when it was time to vote on the Orange City-based Christian liberal arts college’s budget in the middle of June that year, Christy and his board approved a spending plan which budgeted for fewer students. But in the fall, students returned at a rate of more than 100%, the president told The Christian Post.

While some Christian colleges are facing declining enrollment, Northwestern College had three consecutive years of record enrollment even during the pandemic in the fall of 2019, 2020 and 2021. 

Last September, the school reported having an enrollment of 1,585, a 2% increase from 2020’s record enrollment. In September 2020, after students returned to campus following pandemic closures, the school reported a 9% increase from 2019 when its enrollment jumped from its previous record of 1,412 to 1,546. The school had set its previous record of 1,342 in 2006. 

The school saw its largest enrollment of graduate students, with 500 enrolled in the school’s online master of education program and on-campus master’s program in physician assistant studies in 2021. And the school also saw a record freshman retention rate of 82.8%

“We were very blessed and fortunate,” Christy said. “The silver lining in the cloud of COVID for us, I think, was the residential experience. ... In our case, over 90% of our students live on campus.”

After the pandemic hit in early 2020, most colleges and universities had no choice but to shut down in-person learning by March and move to completely virtual learning avenues, which left many wondering about the unknown future of in-person education.

After about six months of closures, many colleges and universities reopened. And for some, in-person enrollment hasn’t quite returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Tim Fuller, a Christian college enrollment trend expert and founder of Fuller Higher Ed Solutions, an organization that helps Christian colleges and universities with enrollment, strategic planning and other leadership issues, says that post-traditional learners or older adult learners aged 37 and up have played a significant role in a slight decrease of 5.5% in those applying to and attending Christian Colleges. 

Despite the slight decrease that Fuller has noticed, some Christian higher education institutions have seen record increases in enrollment from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2021.

Handling the pandemic

Northwestern College
A student wears a mask amid the pandemic at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, in 2021. The campus has had safety measures and protocols in place since 2020 in hopes of improving the safety of in-person learning. |

For Northwestern, Christy believes the record enrollment numbers are a direct result of how the school handled the pandemic since the school continued its residential experience during the fall of 2020-2021 academic year. 

“The biggest thing I think was how we handled the pandemic versus how some other campuses handled that. Some students heard that through word of mouth, and they wanted that in-person experience. And I think that also boosted our enrollment again in the fall of 2021,” he said. “I think the way that we handled COVID was certainly not perfect. I’m sure there are things we would do differently. There was no handbook on how to conduct in-person classes in the midst of a pandemic, but I’m really proud of the way our campus community did that.”

Christy said that when students returned to Northwestern in the fall of 2020, they “begged” him not to send them home for the spring semester. 

“I think from an undergraduate student standpoint, our students did not like having to finish the spring semester of 2020 at home and online. They value the in-person experience here,” Christy said. 

“Because for that age group —18-to-23-year-olds — so much of the experience is here in the classroom and out of the classroom on campus with face-to-face communication, relationship building with their faculty members, with their coaches, with their advisors, with their tutors, and so they really missed that. And I think just by word of mouth, they were literally desperate to come back to the campus in the fall of 2020.”

Knowing that students didn’t want to go back to virtual learning, Christy said the college went to great lengths to enact safety measures and protocols on campus to try to keep in-person learners as safe as possible.

The campus advised students to wear masks in four places that Christy refers to as the four C’s: class, chapel, crowded and congested spaces and the cafeteria. 

Northwestern converted various places on campus with large spaces into classrooms, such as the campus theater, the library’s community room and a dance studio. The indoor track in the campus student center had been converted into an area to hold chapel. In every classroom, desks are six feet apart and masks are required. 

Northwestern College Student Center
Christian hip-hop artist and writer Sho Baraka speaks during a chapel service at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, in October 2020. To promote social distancing, chapel services were held for several months in the more expansive four-court area of the college's student center, rather than in Christ Chapel. |

As a result of strategic planning, Christy said, Northwestern could have full in-person classes during the entire 2021 academic year. And during that time, the school also offered its normal extracurricular activities and athletics from the beginning of the fall. The school also had campus concerts and theatrical performances. 

“We just got creative, and I really give kudos to our faculty and staff for their creativity and the extra work that they went through. We had many students who did have COVID during that school year at different times after being exposed, and they remained quarantined,” he said. 

“Our residence and staff would deliver meals to those students that were in isolation or quarantine. It took quite an effort, but we were really grateful, and our families were extremely grateful that we were able to continue to have in-person instruction and in-person activities for the entire 2021 academic year.”

When more people discovered that Northwestern made an effort to have on-campus classes and a complete range of extracurricular activities both in the arts and athletics, many students transferred to the campus, Christy said. He believes that played a role in the record enrollment in the 2020-2021 school year. 

“The protocols that we did put in place were very different than a lot of other colleges and universities around us,” he said. “Even other Christian colleges were much more stringent, in terms of requiring regular testing, daily and weekly testing, not allowing students to have in-person instruction, but moving all classes online and not having athletic seasons.”

“We were actually seeing more transfers than usual from other institutions since last year when there were some students that were frustrated about the amount of precautions and things they were not able to do in person,” he added. 

While Christy said Northwestern had numerous undergraduate students, graduate students and staff who contracted COVID-19, none of the cases were “serious or fatal.” 

“I think it largely had to do with how we handled the pandemic in a careful, but I would say in a reasonable way,” Christy added.

'A mixed bag'

Even with colleges such as Northwestern seeing increased enrollment, other Christian higher education institutions have seen decreases in enrollment for various reasons from 2019 to 2021. 

“Enrollment is a little bit of a mixed bag,” Fuller told CP. “Some are up, some are down, but in general, in terms of undergraduate enrollment, there has been a slight decline.”

The decrease in enrollment, he said, has occurred because older adult learners have faced a degree of “struggle” throughout the pandemic that many younger adult learners aged 17 to 26 have not experienced. 

Many older adult learners have had to stay home with their children who cannot attend school due to virtual learning — which has led to disruptions that have prevented many of them from enrolling in school.

“For an [older] adult learner — whether they’re in graduate school or trying to complete an undergraduate degree later in their lives, … often the biggest competition for them is not one school versus another, it’s life itself,” Fuller said. “And during the pandemic, life itself for many adults has become a lot more complicated and especially for those who are in more vulnerable places socio-economically.”

For both older adult learners and traditional undergraduate-aged students, the pandemic has changed the process of enrollment in many ways because campuses have switched to more virtual tours, and students have visited fewer schools as a result.

In some cases, Fuller said students rely on only virtual tours to make their final decision to enroll in the school of their choice. Fuller said virtual tours were not used as much before the pandemic as they are being relied on now. 

“I do think we will continue to see these changes in behavior. ... I think some Christian Colleges are recognizing that they have to shift to doing more smaller events so that people have a better sense of safety about that as well,” Fuller said.

“There is a genuine eagerness to get back to the way things used to be on the part of the students and parents, so I expect to see that continue. However, I do think behaviors surrounding the way in which a student begins to approach preparation for enrollment could potentially continue to evolve as we experience life changes."

‘This is what kept us thriving’

Colorado Christian University
Students attend an event at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado. |

Despite the slight decrease that Fuller has noticed in the overall Christian higher education enrollment, Colorado Christian University in Lakewood is another school that has seen record enrollment during the pandemic. 

CCU Senior Vice President Jim McCormick, the vice president of student life and enrollment, said that for traditional learners, enrollment has increased by 8% every year for the past 12 years. 

The university has a total enrollment of 9,111. With the rise of online learning, CCU has seen much of its growth in the adult undergraduate enrollment category, which comprises 5,817 students. McCormick said that CCU’s adult program has been growing anywhere between 10% to 15 % a year over the past several years. 

In 2010, the university had a traditional undergraduate enrollment of 830. But since then, it has increased to 1508, according to data compiled last September. 

“Our enrollment during the pandemic on the traditional side was a little flat for 2019 and 2020. We grew a little bit. But then we had more than 100 student growth from 2020 to 2021,” McCormick said. “And of course, on the adult side, a lot better growth there. The pandemic has driven many to online education, and so they have actually grown at about 10% a year over the last three years.” 

McCormick said nearly all the school’s marketing in the last two years has been about in-person learning and running the college as “normal” as possible. 

Even though it seemed as though there was no other choice but to go fully remote in the spring of 2020, McCormick admits he has some regrets about having done so.  

“At small Christian colleges, the residential experience is so important, and people choose a Christian place to be integrated into the fabric of a Christian community,” he said. 

“We said very quickly that we were going to be fully residential in the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021. We were not going to go online again after that initial period. And looking back on it, I’m sad we did then. I’m not happy that we actually went online from March to May of 2020. Looking at our cases now versus then, we had no cases then at all. So we could have easily stayed in-seat the rest of that semester.”

One thing McCormick said helped build enrollment at CCU was hosting special events on campus. Also, the school continued with on-campus visits when many other schools discontinued the practice. 

CCU also held scholarship events. One such event is titled “world changers” and allows around 200 students to spend a few days on campus before the academic year begins. 

“Many of those students who couldn’t visit another school they were interested in during that time were able to visit with us. This is what kept us thriving,” McCormick said. 

Shirley Hoogstra, the president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, an association that advocates on behalf of the interests of over 185 Christian institutions worldwide, including CCU and Northwestern, said enrollment to Christian colleges could potentially see drastic changes in many ways within the next few years. But it’s too soon to tell whether enrollment will increase or decrease.

“In a 10-year period, or even in a five-year period, Christian college enrollment can have a surge, or they might have a decline one year and then have the reverse the next year,” Hoogstra told CP. “So, I would say right now we are seeing something that has been ongoing.”

Hoogstra shared that despite Christian colleges seeing an overall decline in enrollment, some of the other Christian colleges that saw increases during the 2020-2021 school year include Grace College in Indiana, York College in Nebraska and Oklahoma Christian University.  

Hoogstra and Fuller agreed that the schools that saw increases in enrollment took “extra” steps to ensure that their institutions adapted to the changing academic and social environments amid the pandemic. And as a result, they said those schools saw the most successful increases in enrollment trends.

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