Small Christian colleges set attendance records despite pandemic

5 Church of Christ schools lead way

Tennessee's Freed-Hardeman University
Tennessee's Freed-Hardeman University | Courtesy Freed-Hardeman University

Five of the 10 Church of Christ-affiliated universities have record enrollments this fall, as do several other primarily undergraduate United States schools emphasizing on-campus instruction while upholding biblical inerrancy.  

The schools are distant outliers in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data for four-year private higher education, which showed that sector’s student body down 2% from last fall. The institutions hemorrhaged the worst with first-time students of traditional age — 11.1% lower for those 18-20 and 29.9% among enrollees 21-24.

However, the Church of Christ universities gained up to 26%, all having a majority of students on campus. They averaged 1,895 students this fall.

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Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee, reported a 3% jump to 2,188, typical of the Church of Christ institutions.

“Our students come from the same basic faith; the geography of our schools makes us different,” Dave Clouse, the school's vice president for community engagement, told The Christian Post. “We don’t really compete with each other and have very little overlap.”

Also reporting record enrollments were Dordt College (Christian Reformed Church), Bethany Lutheran College (Evangelical Lutheran Synod-Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod), Milligan University (Independent Christian Churches), California Baptist University (Southern Baptist), Carson-Newman University (Southern Baptist), Samford University (Southern Baptist), Arizona Christian University (nondenominational) and Colorado Christian University (nondenominational).

Only CBU and CCU exceed 6,000 students.

“Students, whether they realize it or not, are looking for a place where they can belong,” Clouse explained to CP about smaller schools dominating the lists. “It’s a lot easier to belong where they fit in and know people. … With a more intimate relationship in a smaller campus environment, you’re not going to get lost.”

Freed-Hardeman also has put donor advancement and student recruitment together under Clouse, and he took the university’s president, David Shannon, on the road to meet with both groups. “The personal contact created a lot of momentum that’s begun to feed on itself,” Clouse said, adding he ramped up social media in “a huge way.”

“If you boil it all down, it’s about building relationships,” he summed up.

York College of Nebraska, a school now of 640 in a town of 7,700, led the Church of Christ in percentage increase. Staffers have been busy checking temperatures, maintaining social distancing, and otherwise keeping COVID-19 away while welcoming 132 more students. 

“We can face this year with boldness because the same amazing God who spoke the universe into existence is actively at work in and through us at York College,” York College President Sam Smith said in a statement.

Samford University set an enrollment record for the 12th straight year, with 5,729 students in fall classes.

R. Philip Kimrey, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, credited his admissions team with great creativity in its virtual adaptation of spring recruitment events such as Admitted Student Day, campus visits and college fairs.

Staffers also had a series of webinar-style topical conversations and offered personalized individual meetings and appointments. Virtual Bulldog Days, Samford’s new student orientation, attracted more than 1,000 families, a record.

At the Alabama school, 86% of fall courses include some elements of in-person learning. Approximately 52% of courses are face-to-face, and 34% of courses are hybrid, having online modules along with in-person classes. 

“It is gratifying to see the hard work and resilience of our faculty and staff and their steadfast commitment to making this a place of superior learning and extraordinary personal development,” Kimrey said.

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