Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Students’ religious sentiments are changing. Does that mean Christian colleges must change too?
Millennials are less likely to believe in God than are members of previous generations, the Pew Research Center found in 2015, and they are less likely to attend religious services every week. Only 41 percent said that organized religion played an important role in their lives; instead, many identify more broadly as "spiritual."
For colleges whose Christian affiliations have long been at the core of their identities — and their sales pitches — this is an ominous trend. Prospective students’ declining interest in organized religion has resulted in a "dwindling pool to choose from," says Craig Goebel, a principal at the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that advises colleges on admissions and marketing strategies.
To Mr. Goebel, the conclusion is clear: Christian colleges must adapt to new strategies and messaging, as many small colleges and women’s colleges have done. "Do you want students who are trying to find a church?" Mr. Goebel says he asks his clients. "Or are you looking for students who are interested in finding a college that will also address their faith?"
Different institutions adapt in different ways. Mr. Goebel encourages his clients to recruit not just students who already identify with a religious affiliation, but also nonreligious students "interested in a faith-based education who are looking for the education, first and foremost."
Some institution focus on spirituality. Marquette University, a Roman Catholic institution, has created the Marquette Colleagues’ Program, which teaches Jesuit values through community service, to attract students who are less religious but more spiritual. Others emphasize career outcomes. Providence College, a Dominican institution, has embraced a "larger mission of trying to help students find out what their God-given vocation is," says the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, the president.
Angie Richey, vice president for enrollment at Life Pacific College, an evangelical institution in California, has studied the changing demographics and interests of the so-called Generation Z — people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "Maybe some of our institutions have not been prepared for the cultural shift," she says. "This new generation is teaching us what matters to them, and how we cannot just adjust to what matters to them, but highlight what speaks to them."
Many colleges have pushed to do just that, even if it means discarding some orthodoxies. But some have chosen the opposite course: "doubling down" on their faith, as Mr. Goebel puts it. What does it mean to follow that path?
‘More Perfectly Aligned’
J. Robert White is executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, which oversees three small Baptist colleges in the state: Brewton-Parker College, Shorter University, and Truett McConnell University. Mr. White doesn’t see institutions that have played down their religious affiliations as models; instead, he cites Liberty University, the evangelical powerhouse in Virginia that has stuck by conservative curricula and theological stances, and preserved strict behavioral standards for students.
Liberty is a good example of a "quality academic institution and a Christian environment," he says. "Basically, on a smaller scale, that is what we’re doing at our three schools." Officials on the Georgia campuses reflect that view. "When a student is looking for a conservative Christian institution, we want them to know that we are here," says Emily Messer, vice president for enrollment management at Shorter.
That wasn’t always the plan. In the early 2000s, Shorter and some other Baptist colleges in the South sought to follow a less conservative, less-traditional path.
Controversy stirred at Shorter in 2001, when the Georgia Baptist Convention (now known as the Georgia Baptist Mission Board) elected new trustees for the college without the approval of its president, Ed L. Schrader.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Shorter’s accrediting agency, said in a report that the college’s trustees had experienced "undue pressure" from the convention. Eventually, the Board of Trustees voted to sever ties with the convention, and sued to retrieve $9 million it said it was owed by the convention. The board lost the lawsuit, and the convention consolidated its influence. Six years later, a new president, Donald V. Dowless, was chosen.
When Mr. Dowless arrived, in the fall of 2011, he immediately steered the college in a more conservative direction. He invited all faculty and staff members to the chapel, where he informed them they would be expected to sign a "personal-lifestyle statement" and a statement of faith. In the lifestyle statement, employees agreed to reject "all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality."
"Most of the faculty were fairly liberal and wanted to embrace change. That didn’t really go over very well with the Georgia Baptist Convention," says Michael Wilson, a former librarian at Shorter. Mr. Dowless said the statements simply codified expectations that were always in force at Shorter.
The ensuing conflict between Mr. Dowless and employees who disagreed with him resulted in the departure of 83 faculty and staff members, Mr. Wilson among them. Thirty-five of the departing faculty members had worked full time. Enrollment plummeted by more than 200 students in the fall of 2012.
At Truett McConnell and Brewton-Parker, similar conservative turns were somewhat less controversial.
In 2015, Brewton-Parker’s Board of Trustees named Steven F. Echols as president. A small group of professors left the college when he announced that faculty members would be expected to sign the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, a document requiring them to oppose sins such as racism, greed, adultery, and homosexuality. "There was no heated conflict," Mr. Echols says.
Brewton-Parker’s Christian identity is defined by more than the lifestyle statement. Attendance at chapel services is required, and tobacco and alcohol are forbidden on the campus. Biology is taught from a creationist perspective, while evolution is considered a theory, says Chris Dooley, vice president for enrollment services. A "biblical worldview is strained through every bit of our classes," he says.
At Truett McConnell, some faculty members departed after they were given 18 months to decide whether to sign the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, which was adopted by the president, Emir Caner, in 2010, two years after he took office.
"The 20th century saw the degradation of sound, biblical theology," said Mr. Caner the day he announced the adoption of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. "The Georgia Baptist Convention and our churches deserve nothing less than a faculty that will abide by nothing less than the essentials of faith."
Under the new, convention-approved presidents, the three colleges "are more perfectly aligned theologically and culturally than I think we used to be," says Mr. White, of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
In 2016, Shorter, Brewton-Parker, and Truett McConnell were all granted religious exemptions from the gender-equity law known as Title IX, which protects students from discrimination based on their gender identity and sexual orientation.
Though all three colleges accept non-Christian students, "we do embrace the niche marketing, so to speak," says Chris Eppling, vice president for student services at Truett McConnell. "We’re not for everybody. "Students, however, aren’t kept in a "bubble world," says President Echols. Brewton-Parker, he says, teaches students how to "engage with ideas hostile to the Christian faith."
Trouble With Enrollment
Since doubling down on their conservative Christian identities, the three Baptist colleges haven’t significantly altered their marketing strategies. "We are catering to a certain subpopulation of students, and we clearly identify that in our mission," says Ms. Messer, the enrollment vice president at Shorter.
The colleges’ close relationship with the Baptist church is crucial both financially — a portion of church donations go to the institutions — and as a recruiting tool. Admissions officials continue to address students at small Christian high schools, as do "church relations staff," who talk to Baptist congregations across Georgia about the colleges, says Mr. Dooley. Students who attend Christian colleges often do so because the institutions promise environments in which they feel safe to express their faith, he says.
Mr. Echols puts it more bluntly: "The new reality, where Christians feel unaccepted and feel under the gun, is going to push them more toward Christian colleges."
That "dwindling pool" of students cited by Mr. Goebel, the consultant, might be affecting the two institutions, however. From 2005 to 2015, Shorter’s traditional undergraduate enrollment fell by more than 45 percent, from 2,454 to 1,345.
Brewton-Parker’s enrollment also dropped by about 45 percent, from 1,139 to 616, over the same decade. Less interest in religion among prospective students "hasn’t been a concern of ours at all," says Ms. Messer. The problem, she says, is "competition in the higher-education marketplace in general."
But Mr. Echols does place some of the blame on a drift away from organized religion. "A decline of Christian values in America" has affected Christian colleges, he says. "Are these influences strong? Absolutely."
Mr. Echols acknowledges that other factors have also played roles in Brewton-Parker’s enrollment decline, such as an increase in online education, the rise of technical colleges in Georgia, and the decline in the college’s adult-study program. "All politics are local," he says, and institutions don’t face the same issues.
Georgia’s Baptist colleges have been hit especially hard. Over the past 10 years, Christian college enrollment in Georgia for part-time and full-time undergraduates has declined by about 2 percent. Georgia’s five Baptist colleges, though, have seen a 32-percent decline.
Which makes Truett McConnell’s enrollment gains all the more surprising. In the past 10 years, its enrollment has grown by 113 percent, from 353 to 752, suggesting that some students still want a conservative Christian education.
Why has Truett McConnell grown when its brethren have struggled? Mr. Eppling attributes Truett McConnell’s growth to Mr. Caner, who "wants to provide a place for a revivalistic atmosphere to flourish." Mr. Caner’s "vision really flows through the very fabric and DNA of who we are and what we do."
But the college has, in its own way, responded to demographic change. There is not much "brand-label loyalty" to organized religion, Mr. Eppling acknowledges. In 2013, Truett McConnell changed its slogan from "biblically centered, distinctively Baptist" to a more general appeal: "from the very first verse to the very last tribe."
The institution’s goal was to "focus our affiliation with God’s word," says Mr. Eppling, "rather than with the denomination."
Dan Bauman contributed to this article.