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Faith-based universities with historically strong denominational ties—Nazarene, Mennonite, and Southern Baptist schools among them—are enrolling fewer students from within their own ranks.
Paul Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), said the trend, seen even in institutions with "very strong, close connections" to denominations, is bound to shape future denominational leadership.
For example, at 18 schools associated with the Churches of Christ (non-instrumental), members of associated churches composed 70 percent of first-year students a decade ago. By fall 2009, that figure had dropped to 53 percent, according to a study by the Harding University Center for Church Growth.
The perceived high cost of a Christian education alongside drops in denominational loyalty have contributed to the changing demographics, said Corts and others.
"So many people now think that everything is just a different flavor," said Mike O'Neal, president of Oklahoma Christian University, a Church of Christ school. "If I'm a Methodist, generally I don't care that a university is Nazarene or Calvinist or whatever. The perception is, we're all alike."
At Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Mennonites represent 45 percent of undergraduates, a decline from previous decades, said president Loren Swartzendruber.
"We know from surveys that a Mennonite student who attends a Mennonite college will be far more likely to be active in a Mennonite congregation as an adult," he said. "Consequently, this trend not only impacts potential leaders but general membership."
Over the past decade, the proportion of Nazarene students at Point Loma Nazarene University has dropped from 30 percent to about 20 percent, said Scott N. Shoemaker, the San Diego school's associate vice president for enrollment.
"The loyal adherence to attending a denominational institution has certainly been diluted through the weakening of historic ties to the church and its clergy," he said.
Union University, a Southern Baptist school in Jackson, Tennessee, has bucked the trend "with intentional outreach to Baptist students," said Rich Grimm, senior vice president for enrollment services. Its entering class is about 65 percent Baptist.
However, Grimm said that by design or not, "There are a number of schools enrolling significantly fewer Baptist students."
Amid heightened competition for students, some universities acknowledge marketing more aggressively outside their denomination. Phil Schubert, president of Abilene Christian University in Texas, said that his school is no less determined to reach out to its Churches of Christ base, "but we're also making a direct appeal to students who [value] our brand of Christian education."
Much of the evidence of the trend remains anecdotal, Corts acknowledged. "I don't know that anyone has done a detailed study on why it's the case," he said. The CCCU might conduct just such a review.
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Previous Christianity Today stories touching on the topic of denominations and Christian schools include:
The Reformer | How Al Mohler transformed a seminary, helped change a denomination, and challenges a secular culture. (October 1, 2010)
Fight Between Erskine College and Its Denomination Will Head to Court | Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church fired board members, alleging mission drift. (March 17, 2010)
Values Clash | Calvin College's denominational requirements make diversity a challenge. (December 20, 2007)
A Higher Education | A slew of new books on faith and learning may signal a renaissance for the Christian college. (May 27, 2005)
What's Next: Higher Education | Uniquely Christian: What evangelical leaders say are the priorities and challenges for the next 50 years. (October 13, 2006)