Rising Tide of Applications Lifts Fortunes of Christian Colleges

Ashley Glover reads the Bible in a chapel at Indiana Wesleyan University, the fastest-growing university in Indiana.
Ashley Glover reads the Bible in a chapel at Indiana Wesleyan University, the fastest-growing university in Indiana. (By Robert Scheer -- Associated Press)
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Religion News Service
Saturday, March 25, 2006

Evangelical Christian colleges are attracting record numbers of applications this year, a trend that bodes well for an educational niche that was struggling to survive a generation ago.

Applications have jumped 8 to 10 percent at the 238 colleges that belong to the North American Association of Christian Admissions Professionals, according to Executive Director Chant Thompson. More applications mean more students on campuses next fall, he says, and that's good news, because 25 percent of those schools are barely breaking even.

Since 1990, enrollment has increased 70 percent, from 135,000 to 230,000, at the 102 evangelical schools that belong to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. Over the same period, enrollments at all public and private colleges increased by 13 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

Observers cite multiple reasons, including relative value in an era in which tuition has outpaced inflation. Religious denominations help contain tuition increases through subsidies often ranging from $1 million to $3 million a year, said Bob Andringa, the council president.

But money isn't the only factor. Students often want to study where their religious beliefs are respected, and respect for faith can be hard to find on secular campuses, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America."

"There is a sense that the people who dominate the faculties at secular universities do have an antipathy toward traditional religion," said Riley, deputy editor at the Wall Street Journal. "It's nice for [students] to go to a place where they don't have to always be defending their beliefs."

In the 1960s and 1970s, religious colleges struggled to attract enough students, according to Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. About 120 Christian colleges closed between 1960 and 1979, according to data collected by historian Ray Brown at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.

Excitement is running high among administrators at Christian campuses that have long strived to grow their enrollments and fill classrooms with high-achieving students. At the same time, more competition means disappointment for some anxious high school seniors who thought their credentials were good enough to get in.

"On Jan. 15, we had thousands and thousands of applications from students who in past years would have been admissible, but we had to wait-list them," said James Steen, assistant vice president of admission and enrollment services at Baylor University in Waco, Tex.

At Baylor, a surge in applications, from 11,000 in 2004 to more than 21,000 this year, is enabling the school to be choosier. In 2006, just 41 percent of Baylor applicants are being accepted, a sharp drop from 65 percent last year and 72 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, standards seem to be rising as the average SAT score is now 1225, up from 1198 at this point last year.

For other schools, more applications spell opportunity to increase revenue by enrolling more students. At Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., a 5 percent growth in applications since 2000 has helped enrollment grow 10 percent, from 832 to 923. Such enrollment growth helps the school make Christian education accessible without raising tuition more than 6 percent a year, said Jay Fedje, director of admissions.

Growing enrollment "is part of the strategy," Fedje said. "We're trying to increase it significantly, but strategically" by remaining what he terms a "moderately selective" school.

Higher application rates have helped even the largest and best-known evangelical colleges meet enrollment goals. Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., for instance, needs to enroll about 1,000 students a year to make its annual budget work. In 2004, the school missed its target by 85 students, but a 24 percent increase in applications last year closed the gap. This year, applications have increased 2 percent from last year.

Critics see a trend toward sheltering young adults.

The rise in applications at Christian colleges points to a desire to insulate young adults from ideas and practices unlike their own, according to Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College.

"These are evangelical families that have figured out they have a choice . . . to keep kids on the reservation," Altbach said. He said it appeals to a segment "on the fringe," who aim to remain culturally separate in many ways from society at large.

Thompson, of the Christian Admissions Professionals, confirmed that evangelical students are the target market. He said an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 evangelical students will graduate from high school each year until 2009, after which the numbers will begin to decline.

"You find Christian colleges wanting to enroll a larger percentage of those students," Thompson said.

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