By Alexa Schwerha
- Enrollment at Christian colleges increased at many institutions between 2019 and 2022.
- Factors could include the COVID-19 pandemic and institutions maintaining a Christian identity, higher education experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
- “Students are drawn to colleges with a clear, distinct identity,” Adam Kissel, visiting fellow on higher education reform at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF.
Christian colleges and universities are seeing an increase in enrollment despite the national enrollment rate of college students being on a decline, higher education experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The national undergraduate enrollment rate dropped 1.1% during the fall 2022 semester while the rate declined a total of 4.2% since 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Many faith-based institutions, however, saw an increase in enrollment which higher education experts claim is because of these institutions’ commitment to their roots.
“We have doubled down on our core essence and purpose as an institution and made that well known to prospective students,” Jonathan Sanford, University of Dallas (UD) president, told the DCNF.
UD, a “Catholic, liberal arts university known for [its] intellectual rigor and [its] deep commitment to the Catholic faith and a robust, Western-based classical education,” according to Sanford, welcomed its second-largest incoming class to the Texas school in fall 2022, its website reads. The school set its record enrollment rate during the 2021-2022 academic year and welcomed 487 freshman students.
“I think there’s a deep hunger in the souls of all individuals, but particularly in this generation, for a real education and real exposure to the timeless ideas and classical texts as well as real exposure to how to build upon those timeless truths and classical texts in order to be innovative contributors to the renewal of culture,” Sanford said.
Stephen Johnson, director of marketing and communications at Benedictine College in Kansas, told the DCNF that the Catholic liberal arts school had “record enrollment once again for Fall 2022 and recruiting is going strong for Fall 2023.”
“It is heartening that schools like Hillsdale College—schools that take a classical approach to the liberal arts—are seeing an increase in student interest, and that the media are taking note,” Emily Stack Davis, executive director of media relations and communications at Hillsdale College, told the DCNF. “At Hillsdale, we recognize that education should point to the permanent things—an understanding of what it means to be human, how to live a good life, and what leads to happiness.”
Hillsdale College enrollment increased 16% in fall 2021, according to MLive. It experienced a 53% boost in applications, as well.
“We at Hillsdale understand that a college requires working and being together. Indeed, the word ‘college’ comes from the Latin for ‘partnership,’” she said. “During the pandemic, we continued to learn together, in person, to the greatest extent possible. In the future, we plan to continue to do what we have done since our founding in 1844: ‘To furnish all persons who wish, irrespective of nation, color, or sex, a literary, scientific, [and] theological education … and to combine with this such moral and social instruction as will best develop the minds and improve the hearts of its pupils.’”
Chris Weinkopf, executive director of college relations at Thomas Aquinas College, told the DCNF that its “California campus reached maximum capacity (about 400 students) several years back but has held steady ever since.”
He told the DCNF that the school opened its New England campus in 2019 to allow more applicants to be accepted. The campus increased from 58 students to 159 students by the start of the 2022-23 academic year, Weinkopf said.
“We can only grow enrollment as quickly as we can hire qualified new faculty, so that limits our rate of expansion to a healthy, moderate pace,” he explained. “But by God’s grace, we have experienced no difficulty in finding new students.”
“Students are drawn to colleges with a clear, distinct identity,” Adam Kissel, visiting fellow on higher education reform at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF. “Devoutly Christian colleges out-compete colleges that are Christian-in-name-only. If you come from a Christian household and you’re still a Christian and you want a particular Christian experience, you go to an explicitly Christian college more often than to a different kind of Christian college or a secular college. That identity is attractive for a lot of students today and if you’re not religious, then you have thousands of other colleges to choose from and that’s spread out among all those colleges.”
The increase in Christian school enrollment may also be attributable to a higher birth rate in religious families than secular ones, Kissel said.
John Wesley Reid, editor-in-chief for the Standing for Freedom Center at Liberty University, told the DCNF that the increase in college enrollment piggybacks off the spike in students attending Christian high schools. He explained that when parents witnessed the curriculum taught in public schools during the 2020 pandemic there was a shift toward more faith-based learning.
“2020, the pandemic, forced parents to be involved with their kids’ education again. Everybody was at home. Everybody saw the screens, and the parents were like ‘now wait a minute, this is not right,’” Reid explained. “2020 was a revelation to a lot of parents. They saw what was happening, they were not OK with it, and so since 2020 and 2021 and into 2022, a lot of students were pulled out of the … public schools and put into Christian schools.”
Schools in the Association of Christian Schools International increased their K-12 enrollment 12% between the 2019-20 and the 2020-2021 academic year, The New York Times reported. Reid clarified the number represented students “leaving the public school and going to Christian school” and doesn’t include students who were homeschooled.
He explained that this shift may have impacted how students considered which college they would attend after graduation.
“The great awakening that happened in the public high schools is manifesting in enrollment in Christian schools,” he said. “They woke up, parents, and students too … during the 2021-22 school years and said ‘we’re not going to do this anymore.’ So that mentality followed them into their college choice.”
Sanford echoed this sentiment when discussing UD’s approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prioritized in-person learning.
“We stayed open. With minimal disruptions, we had to make some provisions, but we decided to value the in-person experience, the actual classroom experience. We recognize that there can be some value to distance learning, but it’s not the robust, personal engagement that you get in the classroom,” Sanford said. “We created an environment in which students could really come back and have that rich, interpersonal, deep education.”
These decisions, he said, may have contributed to incoming students’ decision to choose the university.
“When [Christian universities] just strictly stand their ground, they’re going to look extreme but people are going to find that attractive. People who also want to be the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednegos, the Daniels, the Esthers, the God-fearing men and women, when they see that uncompromising Biblical posture of these universities, it becomes more attractive,” Reid told the DCNF, referencing several Biblical characters who stood strong in their faith. “To them, it’s no longer ‘where should I go to school,’ but it becomes ‘I want to go here because they’re doing good things. They’re standing their ground, and I know that my monetary investment there is going to manifest as a … benefit to me.’”