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 ...

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