The Christian University—By The Numbers

March MadnessLast spring, the presidents of the thirteen institutions in the Christian College Consortium were gathered at our annual meetings in Palm Desert. We were talking (enthusiastically) about the future of Christian higher education, as such Presidents tend to do, carrying on about the incredible value we have to offer our students, their families, and the world. We all believe that. We were quick to note how well things are going on our campuses. Presidents do that too, when they get together: Everything is always going great.

But in the evenings, back in our hotel rooms, we were all watching March Madness, the Final Four basketball tournament, and I experienced something quite unusual for me. I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers at these games and most of all the attractive energy on display. I had an unusual moment of diffidence, intimidation, about my work in the Christian university.  Here were all these spectacular arenas, packed out with wildly enthusiastic crowds, rabidly loyal fans, loyal to their team, but as well to their universities. Though I have my own reasons for regarding the mission of the secular university as limited in our day, sometimes even hollow at the core, nevertheless, the numbers were daunting, the community spirit exuberant, the resources extravagant.

In all of my years as President of Seattle Pacific, I never allowed myself to imagine our worth as measured by numbers alone. I never felt we live in the shadow of the University of Washington, some four times our size. I always trusted our true value. But at times I see the difference, so visibly, so starkly. Numbers aren’t the critical thing, the ultimate thing, I always say, but sometimes they are intimidating.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers (These numbers come from The National Center For Education Statistics, the Pew Research Center, and the Council For Christian College And Universities, with a little interpretation here and there of my own):

  • There are some 20 million students going to college in the United States.
  • There are over 4,000 colleges and universities serving all of these students.
  • 1,600 of the total number of institutions are private.
  • Of the 20 million going to college, 5.6 million students attend private institutions.
  • And here’s an interesting current fact: 72.3 percent of eligible women are going to college, 64.6 percent men. That’s a trend, going on now for decades, worth noting.

Because of my commitment to Christian higher education, I then take note of another set of numbers:

  • Out of the 1,600 private institutions, 900 define themselves as religiously affiliated.
  • 118 of those define themselves as evangelical (in the broadest sense of that term), institutions that are part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the CCCU).
  • Out of 20 million students going to college, 323,492 students attend evangelical schools.

And finally here are the numbers that are truly discouraging:

  • There are roughly 81 million evangelical Christians in America, 26% of the population.
  • By my figuring, that makes for about 16 million 18-24 year olds from evangelical families.
  • If statistics hold for these families, 10,560,000 students from evangelical families go to college.
  • With 323,492 students attending CCCU schools, these estimates mean that only 3% of all evangelical students attend our Christian institutions.

If we just go by the numbers, we have a lot to think about in Christian higher education. We aren’t doing much of a job, it seems, of reaching even our Christian families. It is sort of overwhelming, discouraging, isn’t it? But then the whole evangelical community has a great deal to think about as well. Why are the students from Christian families not going to the great Christian colleges and universities across our land?

I have no trouble talking about the value of most of our Christian institutions in comparison to the secular academy (in fact I’ve written a book on the topic). But why are the numbers so dramatically skewed in favor of the secular universities? It can’t be just about basketball, can it?

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2 replies

  1. Somehow the character (Christian formation) and competence (academic rigor) balance seem hard to find in many CCCU schools. Seattle Pacific U is a gem, particularly because the sciences are so good, but that doesn’t seem the norm. I think that is too bad. I can imagine it must be a huge leadership challenge to strike that balance.

  2. A provocative essay to be sure – I would really like to hear what you think! And it begs the question – why can’t CCCU schools transition to playing Division One sports? Clearly its not as simple as throwing a switch. But the planning to “get there” can be done – especially since Key Arena is in our own neighborhood and sits empty most of the time. It would take a whole new mindset with regard to external relations and marketing of the university since, as we all know, failing to plan is planning to fail. In other areas, we can look at the successful experience of Pepperdine in scaling their graduate business campuses regionally. An executive MBA campus at Camp Casey could serve thousands at NAS Whidbey and all of the Island and Jefferson county areas with over 75,000 residents. Seattle clearly offers growth opportunities, the recent announcement by Northeastern University that they are expanding their graduate program offerings to include fifteen programs at campuses in Charlotte, NC and Seattle at South Lake Union certainly supports that contention. If a university in Boston brings fifteen graduate programs to a campus location five minutes from SPU should we not ask what they are seeing that we are failing to?

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