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Liberty University, a hub of conservative politics, owes rapid growth to federal student loans

Liberty University is not just your average school down the road. The once small Christian college founded in 1971 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell now has the largest student body of any private nonprofit university in the country.

With over 70,000 students, the university has become a destination for political candidates seeking the GOP’s more conservative favor. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) kicked off his campaign during a convocation at Liberty. In May, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) followed in the footsteps of John McCain and Mitt Romney by giving Liberty’s commencement address.

The irony: The exponential growth of Liberty University has been fueled by billions in federal student aid made possible by President Obama and congressional Democrats.

Fifteen years ago, Liberty had 5,939 undergraduate students and 735 graduate students. Last fall, the university enrolled 49,744 undergraduates and 31,715 graduate students.

[Here’s why Liberty University has become a pilgrimage site for GOP candidates]

Most of the university’s dramatic growth has come through distance education, and its online students now make up most of Liberty’s student body. Three-quarters of undergraduates and 97 percent of graduate students at Liberty study exclusively through distance education, according the American Federation of Teachers.

But more astounding than the growth in students is the growth in federal aid. Data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia shows that federal aid has grown five times faster than enrollment.

In the late 1990s, Liberty students received less than $20 million in aid. Students now receive over $800 million dollars a year in federal aid.

As with any federal financial aid, the grants and loans are awarded to students, not the university. Liberty does not receive any other federal funds, but its growth has come by attracting Christian students who qualify for aid.

Many students find Liberty attractive because they can take courses online and can have enough federal aid to cover their living expenses. Federal aid to Liberty’s students has grown so high that it now exceeds the revenue collected by the university.

As with students at any higher education institution, students may take out loans and grants in excess of their tuition and fees. In 2014, Liberty collected $724 million in revenue, which was about $90 million less than federal aid to Liberty students.

Liberty ranks seventh among universities in the nation for receiving graduate-student loan dollars. Most students pursuing a bachelor’s degree can take out no more than about $27,000 from the government, while graduate students can borrow the full cost of attendance.

[These 20 schools are responsible for a fifth of all graduate school debt]

Student financial aid is all part of Liberty’s business model. The school has had distance education programs since the days of VHS tapes and correspondence exams by mail. When online courses expanded the capability of schools to provide courses, Liberty was poised to provide a unique curriculum and programs for conservative evangelicals.

Liberty’s enrollment numbers have grown exponentially since 2004, but federal aid has grown even faster. From 2004 to 2009, enrollment tripled to 30,000; federal aid quadrupled. Enrollment then doubled in the next five years while aid quadrupled again.

One reason for the school’s growth is the expansion of federal aid in 2009. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also called “the stimulus”) increased Pell Grant funding by over $15 billion dollars, and 800,000 more students qualified for the grants. Liberty students increased their total Pell Grants from $18.7 million to $44.2 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Its students also qualified for federal student loans. In 2008-09, Liberty undergraduates received $92.7 million in federal loans. Four years later, Liberty’s undergraduates received $241.4 million in federal loans (2012-13 was the latest year of available data)

For decades, Liberty University was a relatively small Bible college that often faced financial challenges. Like its founder, the college was known for its mix of fundamentalist Baptist theology with conservative politics that took aim at federal government overreach. But its growth over the past decade would not have been possible without billions of dollars of support from the federal government and, more specifically, liberal Democrats who pushed through an expansion of federal financial aid.

Tobin Grant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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