LYNCHBURG, Va. — The small Baptist college that television preacher Jerry Falwell founded here in 1971 has capitalized on the online education boom to become an evangelical mega-university with global reach.
In the almost six years since Falwell’s death, Liberty University has doubled its student head count — twice.
Total enrollment now exceeds 74,000, with nearly 62,000 working toward degrees online in fields such as psychology, business, education, criminal justice and, of course, religion. That makes Liberty the largest university in Virginia — with more than double the number of students at No. 2 George Mason — and the largest private, nonprofit university in the country. With a slogan of “training champions for Christ,” Liberty also is the nation’s largest university with a religious affiliation.
The surging enrollment for a bastion of Christian conservatism in the central Virginia foothills highlights the school as a market leader at the crossroads of religion and higher education. Liberty figured out how to recruit masses of students via the Internet years before elite universities began ballyhooed experiments with free online courses.
Turbocharged growth inevitably raises questions about quality, and Liberty’s academic reputation has not risen as fast as its enrollment. About 47 percent of its first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, federal data show, below the national average of 58 percent. Liberty officials say such statistics reflect an admissions policy geared more toward opportunity than exclusivity.
“We believe that Liberty will redefine what is considered an academically prestigious university in the future,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the university’s chancellor and president. The school, he said, aims to be judged by how many students it educates and how well it educates them rather than how many it turns away.
Liberty’s expansion has yielded a river of money. The university ended 2012 with more than $1 billion in net assets for the first time, counting cash, property, investments and other holdings. That is 10 times what the school had in 2006, putting Liberty in the same financial league as universities such as Pepperdine, Georgetown and Tulane.
Flush with cash, Liberty is building a huge, $50 million library, replacing old dormitories and angling to place its Flames football team in a conference eligible for NCAA bowl games.
“It’s grown from being a small Bible school towards the goal of being a full-service university,” Falwell said in an interview. He said he aims to carry out his father’s vision: “To create for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons.”
Falwell, 50, acknowledged that Liberty’s image continues to be influenced by the legacy of his late father’s political activism. The elder Falwell, who died in May 2007, was a polarizing figure — beloved on the right, despised on the left.
But his son said Liberty has turned a page.
“We’re not the Moral Majority anymore,” Falwell said, referring to the religious conservative movement his father founded. “We’re not a church. Our mission is to educate.”
Liberty weaves biblical teachings into its courses, but faculty are committed to rigorous instruction in disciplines ranging from aeronautics to engineering to law. The university is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which also oversees accreditation of the University of Virginia.
But in academic stature, Liberty trails many schools with religious ties. U.S. News & World Report ranks Notre Dame among the top 20 national universities and Brigham Young University among the top 70. Among schools with Christian affiliations and national cachet are Pepperdine, Baylor and Texas Christian universities and Wheaton College of Illinois.
U.S. News calls Liberty a regional university — a lower-profile designation — and ranks it 65th in a grouping of Southern schools.
In his influential guide to about 300 prominent colleges, analyst Edward B. Fiske says Wheaton is “at the top of the heap in evangelical education.” Liberty isn’t in the book.
“The question is whether Liberty’s online operation is going to bring it academic respectability,” Fiske said in an interview. “I don’t know. There’s really not a precedent for this. . . . Academic reputations take a long time to build.”
Liberty is well known as a stage for politicians seeking to reach an evangelical Christian audience. Mitt Romney delivered the 2012 Liberty commencement speech soon after sewing up the Republican presidential nomination, and he carried the campus precinct in the November election with 93 percent of the vote.
On campus, students are prohibited from drinking alcohol or having premarital sex. They also are barred from watching R-rated movies, with exceptions sometimes granted upon request. But the school boasts a plethora of recreational facilities, such as an indoor soccer center and a competitive paintball field. Students can ski or snowboard year-round on a campus peak covered with a moist, white, slippery synthetic material known as Snowflex.
Three times a week, students and staff pack the 10,000-seat Vines Center arena for a one-hour convocation featuring Christian music, prayer and speeches — all streamed online. Pro football quarterback Tim Tebow is scheduled to speak Friday.
Liberty’s brand is a magnet for many adults who want online higher education with an evangelical Christian point of view.
They are people like Tammy Fox, of Chesapeake, Va.; Tanesha Townsell, of Pittsburgh; and Craig Conradt, from the Seattle area. These three candidates for Liberty master’s degrees in counseling traveled to Lynchburg recently to take short courses with professors face to face, an initiative officials said helps connect online students with the campus community.
Fox, 34, said she has 14- and 11-year-old children and works full time for a Christian ministry’s pregnancy resource center. “We have a very busy life,” she said. “Online classes are the only way I would be able to return to school. Being able to do my homework in my pajamas at midnight — that’s what keeps me going.”
Townsell, 39, a mother of six, said she heard about Liberty through church circles. “My husband is an aspiring pastor,” she said.
She said the course work is challenging. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it was. A lot of paper-writing.”
Conradt, 44, a real estate agent, said he wants to become a marital and family counselor. “I wanted a Christian education,” he said. “Liberty’s been doing it for a while. They’re proven, tested.”
Liberty had about 3,800 online students in fall 2005. Since then, its online head count has grown an average of about 8,000 students a year. The university became Virginia’s largest in the fall of 2008. Last fall, it had 74,369 students.
“That’s a remarkable statistic,” said John R. Broderick, president of the public Old Dominion University in Norfolk, which has about 25,000 students. “To scale up to that level, the resources that you would need to do it would make a real interesting business model.”
Liberty’s prices vary, depending on programs and course load. The school advertises on its Web site that an online bachelor’s degree costs about $39,000 in tuition, less than $10,000 a year for a full-time student finishing in four years.
Richard Garrett, an analyst with Eduventures, a Boston-based education consulting company, said Liberty’s tuition is relatively low for the online sector.
“It is impossible for secular schools to compete with Liberty on the values side,” Garrett said, “and no other evangelical Protestant school has been willing to embrace online to anything like the same extent.”
Eduventures estimated in January that the nation’s largest online university is the for-profit University of Phoenix, with about 270,000 online students.
The nonprofit Liberty, with about 60,000 online students, ranked fourth, according to Eduventures, ahead of The Washington Post Co.’s Kaplan University, another for-profit school, estimated to have about 48,000. The public University of Maryland University College, with about 41,000 online students, ranked eighth.
Many of Liberty’s online students are from the South: Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas. Some are from Canada, South Korea, Germany, Japan and Britain. Liberty has a lower student loan default rate than the national average, indicating that the school in significant measure has avoided a common pitfall of online education: recruiting and enrolling students who amass debts they can’t repay.
Hundreds of advisers pack tight cubicles in a huge student service center here, fielding a steady flow of queries about financial aid, degree requirements and myriad logistical concerns.
“Things like, ‘I don’t know how to order my book,’ ” said adviser Korinne Pina. Or: “I need to reach my professor. I’m not by a computer. Can you e-mail him for me?”
On the walls of this busy nerve center, big blue lettering states the vision for the operation: “LU Online . . . Established . . . Engaging . . . Christian.”
Mark A. Tinsley, department chair for science in Liberty’s College of General Studies, said online instructors engage students through interactive discussion boards and video lectures. Class size is capped at 25 students. Students are given frequent writing assignments, Tinsley said, and receive substantive feedback. Faculty are urged to respond quickly to e-mail to ensure that far-flung students stay on track. They also talk often with students by phone.
Tinsley said Liberty uses “biblical integration” as it teaches science.
“We want to relate all of our subjects back to Scripture, theology and a biblical worldview,” he said. But Tinsley said students use textbooks that would be found in secular universities. In certain situations in an Earth science course, for example, a student would learn the case for biblical creation alongside the science of evolution.
“We try to present full arguments on both sides and then allow the student to make a decision,” Tinsley said. He added, “I’ve had many students over the years who have held to an evolutionary standpoint and gotten A’s.”
Andrew K. Benton, Pepperdine’s president, said Monday that he did not realize that Liberty had grown so much so fast. But in higher education circles, he said, Liberty is considered a school on the move. “For some reason, the word ‘upstart’ comes to mind,” Benton said. “They’re viewed as new and pressing forward. There’s a high energy there.”