The future of Christian colleges looks grim

"Cincinnati Christian University is closing its doors.

On Oct. 28, the university announced it would cease to be an accredited degree offering institution at the end of the fall semester …

… Additionally, Indiana Wesleyan University announced on Aug. 27 the termination of several faculty positions by the end of the 2019-20 school year, according to The Sojourn …

… The recent trends of lower enrollment are also the result of a decline in midwestern and northeastern high school graduates from which Taylor is able to recruit, Mortland added …" …

I wonder if Christian colleges are having more issues with this than small colleges in general, or if it’s mostly just from the same demographic changes that are affecting other schools of the same size and selectivity.

Small Catholic colleges are facing problems but large Catholic universities seem to be doing fine.

It’s demographics and location.

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Seems like an overclaim, since not all Christian colleges are in financially poor condition. Are Baylor, Brigham Young, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Pepperdine in financial danger?

@ucbalumnus - The ones you list are big-name, big-money institutions, and several of them are definitely much more selective than places like the ones listed in the OP.

As the college-age population continues to drop, lots of places are going to go under - just like the mid. '70’s when the boomer population began to crash and the Vietnam War draft ended. A whole bunch of not-top-tier institutions folded then.

It is possibly affecting more than Christian colleges:

I was struck by how small the colleges named in the article are. Some are less than half the size of DD’s high school. That has to be a big factor.

Another issue is that there are fewer and fewer conservative evangelical Christian youth and those do differ significantly from what adults think, especially wrt LGBTQ rights and climate change.
Another issue is that these colleges (Catholic or evangelical) typically have fewer resources and less financial aid possibilities.

I tend to think that changing demographics is the biggest factor for many of these schools which draw most of their enrollment from just a few states. For example, my D19 is a freshman at Hope College in Holland, MI. Hope draws heavily from Michigan, followed by Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. In MI, IL and OH, the total number of high school graduates has declined significantly, presenting obvious enrollment challenges for not only Hope but other colleges as well. I found this rather detailed analysis of the issue on the Hope website:

Most Christian colleges were started by specific denominations and enjoyed great financial support from their member churches. The long distances of these colleges from home was offset by the cut-rate tuition the church college offered. I have 25+ cousins who attended a popular Christian college over the years this way, and the school they attended was 2500 miles from home. However, as these denominations have weakened, the support from churches has dwindled and now that same college is $55k a year. None of my cousins can afford to send their kids to their alma mater so they attend public universities. I think this is an issue for many Christian colleges, especially those that were small to begin with.

Fewer Christians means Christian universities will need to close or become more secular. Georgetown University is an example of a college that’s becoming increasingly secular and losing any distinct Christian identity. In another 20 years, I would expect Georgetown University to be as non-religious as any other non-Christian private elite, even if they still include Catholic in their mission statement.

I read this article and one thing that stands out to me is that many Christian colleges are located in rural areas and college kids want things to do. It used to be that location wasn’t that important since many kids attended a Christian college due to it being connected to their home church denomination. Now that denominational ties have weakened, there no longer is this automatic supply of kids to attend and colleges must compete.

Taylor University is a good example of a school that has a good academic reputation yet is fighting dwindling enrollment. We looked at it for DS19, but wow, that place is in the middle of nowhere. Kids who attend without a car are truly stuck, as except for a few mom and pop restaurants/shops, it’s 30 minutes to anything else. Taylor also is pretty pricey and doesn’t give a whole lot of merit aid.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen. Can you name one way Georgetown is less religious than it was 10 years ago? Still run and administered by the Jesuits.

Marist is no longer catholic and yet 70% of the student body identifies as Catholic. Kind of hard to shake the image. I don’t see the Jesuits selling their schools.

It will be interesting to see what Catholic colleges look like in 20 years.

Catholic colleges [beside Holy Cross, Notre Dame, Boston college, G’town which have national applicant pools] don’t have to worry - while a small number of Latino Americans are Evangelical, many/most are Catholic and attached to their faith. These colleges’ future rests with them.

It’s true that many Christian colleges are in the middle of nowhere. But they’ve also sold a type of austerity, refusing material comforts/fun (limits on card playing, dancing, type of music or films) in a traditional focus on matters of faith and mind. Unfortunately many high school students have now grown up in comforts they don’t want to give up, they also want college to be fun. Christian colleges have been working on “good, clean fun” alternatives but the concept is complicated for high school students.

This is very true. Young people today have high expectations for comforts. Look at social media and the most popular videos are college dorm tours of very swanky places along with students taking advantage of all of the local things to do. Not many kids are willing to go to a tiny college, in the middle of nowhere, with spartan dorms and no restaurants or entertainment for miles while still spending a hefty amount on tuition.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see there be a few winners and lots of losers here, not unlike the projected future for colleges in general. I suspect that a lot of the ones run by smaller sects will not make it. I also wonder how the shrinking of Catholic clergy numbers will affect Catholic colleges. My D goes to a HS run by a Catholic order (not the diocese). The school is extremely successful, but the brothers who live at the school are all pretty old, and AFAIK there aren’t any replacements on the way. There aren’t that many of them, but symbolically they’re very important. Everyone there seems to understand that the day will come when they’re just a bunch of pictures on the wall.

Very interesting topic!

A substantial number of secular institutions aren’t faring well either.

The future of small colleges of every type (religious or not) with small endowments and remote locations looks grim. It was looking grim before COVID, and the pandemic has only accelerated the negative trend.

A lot of small religious colleges are in serious trouble because a lot of denominations are splitting apart along rural/urban and liberal/conservative lines. I attended a small religious college as did many in my family, especially in previous generations. My kids are uninterested as are many of their generation. And frankly I don’t blame them.

My own background is with Mennonite colleges (Goshen College, Eastern Mennonite University, Blufton, Fresno Pacific, Bethel (Kansas) etc. What has happened over the past generation is the following:

  1. More urban and liberal Mennonite families are increasingly sending their kids to public and secular universities because they have largely moved away from traditional Mennonite areas and don't see the value of sending their kids across country to a struggling liberal arts college with high tuition.
  2. The more conservative rural Mennonites tend not to send their college as much as might have been the case in the past. Maybe bible college. But there is an increasing skepticism about higher education in general.
  3. The small Christian colleges are caught in a bind. The aren't really progressive enough to attract liberal Christian kids from urban areas who might be looking for a more diverse experience. But they also aren't conservative enough to attract conservative rural families. So they are bleeding enrollment at both ends. Some aggressive schools with deep pockets like Liberty University are pulling it off, but they are operating on a completely different scale from small rural Christian liberal arts schools.
  4. Many of these schools are nearly 100 years old or older and were built in a time when the country was much more rural and much more religious. There is no escaping that fact. Culture and population has just shifted away from small midwest and northeast towns and nothing will change that.