Hugo Paredes is the first in his family to go to college. But he doesn’t physically go to college.
Point University, the Georgia evangelical school he attends, is about 100 miles from Rockmart Chick-fil-A, where he works as a operations manager. But the 32-year-old is hopping online between busy shifts, serving up chicken sandwiches, sorting out management issues and planning employees for the week ahead.
Paredes is one of 1,200 online students enrolled at Point, utilizing its franchisee’s subscription to the college, which allows employees to take online courses for free as a benefit of their jobs. He wants to complete his bachelor’s degree in business administration in two years.
“You helped me change my life,” Paredes said. “I wish I could be a full-time student, but just being able to participate in the program is a blessing.”
Across the country, evangelical colleges and universities like Point have creatively and aggressively expanded online education. College presidents and administrators believe this is one of the best strategies for overcoming college enrollment challenges while increasing the availability of Christian education and expanding the impact of their schools. Critics, on the other hand, say online degrees undermine quality and fear these programs diminish the value of a Christian liberal arts education.
Many schools have shifted more online during the pandemic. But it wasn’t entirely new territory. A significant number of schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) have been providing online education for more than a decade. As recently as 2013, around 13 percent of all students at CCCU schools were enrolled exclusively online. As of 2018, nearly 1 in 5 CCCU students were attending online. Data from 2022 and 2023 is not yet available, but it is possible that up to a third of students at evangelical colleges are not physically at their schools.
Christian schools that report significant increases in enrollment often credit the expansion of online options. Abilene Christian University, affiliated with Churches of Christ, has seen enrollment increase for five consecutive years and now 32 percent of the school’s nearly 6,000 students are online. Thirty percent of the 1,700 students at Northwestern College, a Dutch Reformed school in Iowa, are online. At Indiana Wesleyan University, an early adopter of online education, three times more students enroll in classes remotely than attend the school’s 11 on-campus Indiana campuses.
Colorado Christian University has achieved record enrollment growth for 13 consecutive years. The non-denominational school currently has about 2,000 students on campus and 8,000 online.
“There is no limit to the growth of interest in online learning and its flexibility, especially for adult learners,” said Colorado Christian Chancellor Donald Sweeting.
Maintaining enrollment numbers plays a major role in keeping colleges financially solvent. Most colleges saw large enrollment declines during the peak of the pandemic, but many also saw declines before that. 65 percent of CCCU-affiliated schools experienced a decline in traditional undergraduate enrollment between 2014 and 2018, and higher education experts predict many schools will fall off a “demographic cliff” in 2025 and beyond as the pool of potential college students shrinks as a result shrinking falling birth rates.
“Finding growth through undergraduate enrollment is a huge challenge,” said Brandon Huisman, vice president of enrollment and marketing at Dordt University and vice chair of the CCCU’s Innovative Enrollment Strategies Committee. “We’ve grown steadily… and a lot of that is thanks to the internet.”
For some Christian college faculties, however, the online shift seems to come at the expense of other commitments.
“The motivation behind the growth seems almost entirely economic,” Chris Gaumer, a former English professor at Liberty University, told the New York Times. Liberty now has more than 115,000 online students compared to 15,800 on campus, raising questions about recruiting tactics.
John Hawthorne, a retired sociology professor and Christian university administrator, said evangelical schools have historically placed a strong emphasis on personal and spiritual education. The shift to online models can make this aspect of education more difficult.
“Online almost by definition puts you further down that transaction line,” he said. “And I think that runs counter to the whole conversation about Christian education.”
Some schools have also outsourced portions of their online programs to ed tech companies. For example, more than 50 Protestant universities have signed contracts with Acadeum, a for-profit online learning platform. Others, including Liberty, use third-party marketing and recruitment, which sometimes downplays religious specifics.
“It puts you two steps away from your core mission as a Christian college,” Hawthorne said. “One step away because you’re online, a second step away because you’re no longer marketing and recruiting.”
Colleges recognize the challenges of staying on a mission. But administrators also say online access is a way to bring affordable Christian education to more people and reach those who could never enroll in a residential program.
“We are called as Christians to help people where they are,” said Nanci Carter, online registrar at Lipscomb University. “The online piece enables us to build this bridge. It only expands our mission and allows us to reach more people and transform more lives with education.”
Many online programs also cater to adults—non-traditional students pursuing a bachelor’s degree later in life, or those pursuing a college degree. Northwestern College’s online programs, for example, are designed almost exclusively for master’s degrees. Most of Dordt’s online students also pursue higher education.
And the programs still integrate faith and learning. The faculty and advisors are almost always Christian, and the courses often require some theological reflection. Online students can also participate in the spiritual life through virtual chapels, email prayer requests, and in-person interactions.
“Online education is a method and an option that allows Christian universities … to fulfill their mission to a broader group of students,” said Joe Bakker, Dordt’s director of online education, who is writing a dissertation on online programs.
Research shows that the vast majority of academic leaders believe online education is part of their school’s future, Bakker said. And teachers who have participated in web-based education are usually supportive. But moving to the internet can be difficult for such faculty.
“Most of us have been in institutions where our focus has been almost entirely on the inpatient, traditional student, so moving into a different market segment can be a bit scary for us,” said Phil Schubert, president of Abilene Christian University. “The more we’ve been willing to do that, the more we see that it can be done really well.”
But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to be cautious. Schubert said Christian schools, especially, need to ensure that growth does not come at the expense of students’ spiritual formation – online or in person.
“We need to ensure our ability to deliver a quality experience steeped in Christian values remains strong,” he said, “and sometimes growth can jeopardize that.”
At Colorado Christian, Donald Sweeting says evangelical institutions like him must hold fast to “the great tradition of Christian higher education” as they continue to grow and expand online options.
“Christian schools have a strong sense of purpose that takes us beyond revenue and operational details,” Sweeting said. “It’s really easy to get involved with the operational side of the university. … But as the president of a Christian college, the purpose of the university is much greater
Hannah McClellan is a reporter based in North Carolina.
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