Liberty U marks record enrollment despite Falwell Jr. scandal

L.U. monogram overlooking the Liberty University campus, Lynchburg, Virginia.
L.U. monogram overlooking the Liberty University campus, Lynchburg, Virginia. | Liberty University

Liberty University’s fall enrollment is up 10.5% from last year’s despite the sex scandal involving ex-President Jerry Falwell Jr. that erupted just as classes began.

The school, founded in 1971 by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., now has 108,000 students online and 14,500 on its campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, school officials told The Christian Post. It is by far the largest university in the United States, based on student population, and the biggest Christian institution of higher education in the world.

College and university enrollment in the U.S. overall fell 3.0% this semester from fall 2019, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which has data from just over half of the country’s institutions. However, the picture is radically different across segments of higher education, with community colleges faring worse at a loss of 9.4% and private, for-profit institutions gaining 3% in undergraduate ranks.

At the same time, enrollment at primarily online institutions increased 6.8% for undergraduates and 7.2% at the graduate level. NSCRC defined POIs as having more than 90% of students taking classes exclusively online.

“Liberty is a national draw, and soon after COVID-19 hit in March, we knew it might be beneficial to us, since we have a strong online enrollment,” Ron Kennedy, the university’s executive vice president of enrollment management and marketing, told CP. The school doesn’t qualify as a POI, having too large a share of on-campus students, but misses only by a few percentage points.

To work the Web side best this year, the university granted a transfer scholarship for students moving there from another institution. LU also used its own aid to replace those that ended from a state program, helping new, first-time online enrollees.

This fall also marked the sixth consecutive year that LU had the same online tuition rate, with the freeze extended to on-campus students for the third year in a row. Kennedy said Liberty will keep the cost the same for at least another year for those studying at the Lynchburg campus.

Regent University, another large evangelical school with a significant online student body, reported 11,309 students this fall for a gain of 7.8%. Major state schools were mixed; for example, San Francisco State University was down 8% and City University of New York 4.4%, but the University of Missouri at Columbia was up 4%.

Another plus for Liberty is on-campus enrollment of people of color edged up 0.3% to 20.6% overall, even as minority undergraduate enrollments were down significantly nationwide. Turner Gill, executive vice president of diversity development and inclusion, applauded the gains. “We are thrilled to see the minority population and the general population increase at Liberty,” he told CP.

As for Falwell, Liberty has retained what its Executive Committee called “one of the leading forensic firms in the world” to investigate “all facets” of his actions in the presidency, which he assumed in 2007. A scandal featuring a social-media post and a long-term affair allegedly involving Falwell, his wife, and a one-time pool attendant led most directly to his ouster as chief executive. However, the committee specifically said the probe will address “financial, real estate, and legal matters,” and a lengthy exposé released Sept. 4 by Reuters news agency that contained details of several questionable dealings by Falwell involving school assets.

The ex-president told reporters that Liberty paid him $10.5 million in severance, but the university stated that was not accurate. The Office of Communications & Public Engagement asserted “media reports … are incorrect,” and Falwell received two years of base salary, per his contract. He also had “accrued retirement benefits” following 30 years of service, it said.

“Over many years, Liberty’s brand has grown to become much bigger than just one person,” Kennedy told CP. “Even in a time of transition, students know that this mission will not change. They are here to gain a Christian education from a world-class university, and Liberty continues to provide that.”

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