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Why some small conservative Christian colleges see growth where other schools see declines

By David Jesse, Detroit Free Press
Published: October 18, 2021, 6:00am
3 Photos
Tiberius Rata, the associate dean at the School of Ministry Studies at Grace College and Seminary, preaches to students during chapel service inside the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center on the campus in Winona Lake, Indiana, on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.
Tiberius Rata, the associate dean at the School of Ministry Studies at Grace College and Seminary, preaches to students during chapel service inside the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center on the campus in Winona Lake, Indiana, on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS) Photo Gallery

Two faculty members of a small, private Midwestern college are up on stage, one sitting behind an electronic keyboard, the other strumming the opening chords of a song on a guitar.

They sing, “God sent His Son, they called him Jesus. He came to love, heal and forgive. …” The Grace College students scattered around the athletic arena now serving as a chapel join in to raise up the Southern gospel classic “Because He Lives.”

When the last note slowly fades away, students raise their arms high, not in worship but in an effort to get their smartphones to capture the QR code now displayed on the screens — the pandemic’s way of recording attendance at the mandatory chapel service.

Grace College in rural Indiana, like others that dot Michigan and neighboring states, exists in a subculture of the higher education landscape — conservative colleges where students are required to sign lifestyle covenants and attend daily chapel. They also are part of a rare group — small, private colleges with growing or stable enrollment.

A Free Press review of 34 four-year colleges that are charter members of a new conservative association of Christian colleges — to which Grace belongs — shows total enrollment at those schools up nearly 8% when comparing fall enrollment in 2020 with fall enrollment in 2010.

A longer-running and bigger association of Christian colleges — with a generally broader canvas of Christian beliefs and practices — is also seeing growth, but less dramatically. Total enrollment is up about 3% over that same decade.

The growth at both sets of Christian colleges far outpaces the overall trend in the private nonprofit school sector. According to a Free Press review of federal data, total enrollment at 950 nonprofit four-year colleges across the country, those under 5,000 students, fell by about 10% from 2010 to 2020. Individual colleges in any of the categories can outperform or underperform the trend, experts caution.

“In a highly competitive environment characterized by fewer incoming students, institutions with the clearest sense of mission and identity are best positioned to stand out from the crowd,” said P. Jesse Rine, professor of education at North Greenville University in South Carolina, who has studied these small colleges.

The growth at these conservative Christian colleges coincides somewhat with the emergence of Trumpism, but the reasons perhaps go beyond the rise of MAGA nation. The increase is rooted in a deeply held belief among many religious conservatives that their faith isn’t welcome on most college campuses, feelings that resonated in the early 1900s, but have been amplified again in the last decade. It also comes as a massive debate over the future of conservative belief is underway in the broader culture, with groups like the Southern Baptist Convention splintering into factions, some trying to modernize approaches while others seek to put the brakes on changes.

In a landscape of small colleges searching for a distinctive draw in a world of shrinking numbers of high school graduates, these most conservative schools have developed that sturdy religious niche — one that used to include just about every private college or university in the country.

Despite the vast majority of private liberal arts colleges being founded by Christian religious denominations, many have shifted in some way, moving from a single strand of Christianity, often in a chase for students, to a multistrand approach, where students with a variety of beliefs are welcome, even as the college keeps its core Christian identity. Other schools have gone completely secular, losing their overtly religious mission.

At the root is a clash of philosophies: The most secular colleges leave it up to students to both ask and answer questions about religion or to avoid the questions altogether. The multistrand colleges raise the questions for students, but let them sort out the answers in an atmosphere guided by broad Christian principles. Colleges that are more conservative and have stuck with founding principles guide students to specific questions — and answers — about life and religion.

Kylie Sandquist chose a conservative school. The Grace College student didn’t blink when she had to sign Grace’s lifestyle covenant, which includes prohibitions against things like premarital sex, homosexual behavior, harboring prejudice and drinking alcohol.

“Nothing really changed with my life,” under the covenant, said Sandquist, a senior who gives admissions tours of the campus to prospective students. That’s because it mirrors how she chooses to live her life.

And for those who go on her tours? “(They) don’t really ask me about it.”

On those tours, most of the scenes look familiar to just about any small college in the Midwest. In classrooms, small groups of students listen to a lecture. Passing students greet each other by name. The dining halls feature multiple food stations, always including at least one salad bar.

But there’s one very visible marker of how Grace College can be different — and it starts at 10:30 a.m. three days a week.

‘We attract students’ to a conservative college

The Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center at Grace is everything a sleek, modern sports facility should be. The 2,000 or so seats in the arena surround the basketball floor in a U-shape. At the far end, a large stage can hold a full band. There are conference rooms, classrooms, offices and display cases.

Grace requires students to attend chapel, and this is where they gather. Pre-pandemic, that meant going in person, with a handful of skips allowed. In the 2020-21 school year, it meant logging on to the livestream with a handful of in-person days required. In the 2021-22 school year, chapel is once again being held in person.

That’s why on this Tuesday of Holy Week — the week leading up to Christian Easter in late March — there are only several hundred students scattered in the bleachers of the basketball gym though there are 1,900 enrolled in school.

As the students straggle in, those who are about to lead the service gather for a quick prayer, standing on the basketball court near the corner three-point line. The student worship team takes the stage and the guitars, drums, violin, keyboard and vocalists lead the group in a mix of contemporary Christian worship choruses and modern hymns.

As the last notes of those songs fade, one of the student leaders prays: “Thank you that your death and resurrection weren’t just historical but are relevant for today.”

Before Tiberius Rata, the associate dean of the school of ministry studies at Grace, begins his message — “The prophecy, the proof and the resurrection of Jesus” — a short video plays, showing bits about Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. At the end of the sections on Islam and Buddhism, the video notes the founders of both those religions are in tombs. It then contrasts that with Christianity, ending with its belief that Jesus rose from the dead and is in heaven.

“In a world that is almost inviting us to fear, Jesus is inviting us to peace,” Rata preaches. “It is only through a relationship with Jesus that you can get the peace that passeth all understanding.”

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Grace began as a Bible seminary in 1937, founded by the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, which is now the Charis Fellowship. Eleven years later, the undergraduate college was added. That places it firmly in a wave of Christian schools founded in the years after World War II, as soldiers came home and had GI Bill benefits to spend on college education. There also was a growing split in Christian higher education that mirrors today’s differences that led to the founding of several colleges that advocated conservative fundamental Christianity.

Enrollment at the northeast Indiana school slid gradually downward in the 1980s and 1990s before starting to perk up. Since 1996, enrollment is up.

Despite still being closely tied to the Charis Fellowship — half of Grace’s board members have to be from the fellowship and the school’s president is involved in a lot of Charis pastors’ retreats — it is no longer the primary source of students. Nondenominational is the biggest category of how students describe the church they attend.

But the diversification in church backgrounds doesn’t mean Grace has expanded its belief system. It still focuses on traditional Christian teaching, including being anti-abortion and believing in one-man/one-woman marriage. School officials say staying true to those beliefs has helped them grow.

“We see Christ and the God of Scriptures as central to everything,” said Drew Flamm, the school’s executive vice president. “That’s what brings students to Grace.”

The school doesn’t hide or apologize for its beliefs.

“We are a conservative evangelical college,” said President William Katip. “We attract students who want that type of school. Our Bible classes are meant to give theological moorings, but in the disciplines is where (students) are taught how to integrate their faith. We don’t just do summer church camp year round. We stress excellence.”

Andre Stone started his collegiate career at Indiana University, but quickly realized it wasn’t the place for him. He transferred to Grace in search of a college where he was cared for. He also was looking for something he couldn’t find at a public school.

“I wanted to get to hear God’s word implemented in classes,” he said. And he wasn’t worried he’d be losing any academic ground to those at a secular school. “They (professors) teach everything. They teach about evolution, but they also teach about God’s word. You don’t get that at (public colleges).”

And like Sandquist and other students at Grace, the lifestyle covenant fit right in with his beliefs.

“I didn’t have to change my life,” he said.

Grace hasn’t had large campus pressure to change its belief system, largely because of its hiring practices. The school carefully screens faculty to make sure they agree with Grace’s faith statement.

“I couldn’t imagine making it if we went away from our beliefs,” Katip said. “The schools that started with a clear faith focus and broadened it — they’re not thriving.”

A quick history lesson

The city of Holland, on the sunset side of Michigan, is the quintessential small Midwest private college town. In the summer, the beaches off Lake Michigan are packed with sun worshippers and wave lovers. In the winter, a special system heats the downtown streets and sidewalks to keep them free of lake-effect snow for restaurant-goers and boutique shoppers.

Just off the downtown, the campus of Hope College sits right where it sat in the mid-1800s when it was founded by the Rev. A.C. Van Raalte with help from the Reformed Church in America, a religious denomination that came from the Netherlands in the 1600s, largely to New York, before pushing westward.

The same pattern was repeated over and over as America grew. Religious — mostly Protestant — groups would settle and start colleges, from Yale and Harvard to Michigan schools Albion and Alma.

“They came in and said, ‘We’re going to create a town and put a college there,’ “ said John Frederick Bell, assistant professor of history at Assumption University in Massachusetts.

The goal at these colleges was simple: instruction in Christianity and the training of pastors. They offered a classical curriculum and worked to train those who attended in their theology and philosophy.

“College was not a time for students to find themselves, but rather a time for them to fit into a mold that had been found for them long before,” Adam Laats, a professor of education and history at Binghamton University in New York, wrote in his book “Fundamentalist U.”

Between the Civil War and World War I, that approach gradually changed, as college after college adopted a more European theme, centered on research and exploration of thoughts. Daily chapels went away and the modern secular university or college emerged into being, one free from religious ties and oversight.

But not all moved away from religion and there were fierce battles in the 1920s about what colleges should be. Conservatives took control of some schools and founded others. In debates that echo today, many of those schools wanted to be “safe schools, schools in which conservative evangelical students from all denominational backgrounds could be protected from the troubling trends of modern life without giving up the benefits of higher education,” Laats wrote.

In the coming decades, that fight continued in cycles, with the future of Christian higher education the subject of fierce discussion, involving schools like Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones College in South Carolina. Famous Christian personalities like evangelist Billy Graham weighed in.

Instead of two strands of higher education — religious-based and secular — the missions began to blur, including a growing number of colleges where Christian beliefs were still the bedrock, but room was given for students to explore their faith.

It’s a split that continues today and can be seen three days a week on Hope College’s campus a few miles from the crashing waves outside Holland.

‘We’re not a church; we’re a college’

On a spring Wednesday morning, Hope College administrators are stationed at each entrance to Dimnent Memorial Chapel’s Gothic structure, each holding a clipboard with a list of names on it. As each student approaches, one administrator flips pages until the name is found and crossed off.

But on this Holy Week morning, the administrators aren’t making sure the students attend — they are making sure only those who signed up get in. Because of COVID-19, only about 80 students will be inside the church with large stained-glass windows, while other students will be watching on a livestream. Normally, the church is full, with about 1,400 students attending.

Despite its foundation in the Reformed Church in America, Hope does not require chapel attendance or students to sign a lifestyle statement or confession of faith. In the last decade, the school has greatly diversified its campus in terms of religious background, with more than twice as many Catholic students identified in the student body as RCA students.

It has embraced being a Christian institution with a core set of beliefs while encouraging students to explore life’s great questions.

“We can’t force students to believe something,” President Matthew Scogin said. “What conclusions (students) come up with is up to them. We’re simply trying to put the questions on the table. The secular schools don’t even put the questions on the table. Other (more conservative colleges) are mirroring churches. Churches should be about answers. We’re not a church; we’re a college. It comes down to inquiry, not answers.”

At 10:30 a.m. on that late March day, Scogin is sitting in the back of Hope’s chapel, greeting students as they spread out in the church’s nave.

The service begins with a student choral group performing, followed by Scripture reading and a congregational song:

“Your goodness is running after, it’s running after me

Your goodness is running after, it’s running after me

With my life laid down, I’m surrendered now, I give You everything

Your goodness is running after, it’s running after me.”

As the song ends, Trygve Johnson, the dean of the chapel and an ordained minister in the RCA, approaches the pulpit to deliver the morning message.

“I’d like to invite you just to hear the story,” of Easter, he tells the chapel. “May your heart be open to what God wants to whisper into your heart.”

He then recites the Bible verses telling the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The recitation feels like Johnson is telling a story, not simply repeating something that had already been written.

“This is a God who shows up in flesh to die on our behalf,” he says after he is done with the verses. “If that isn’t a story we need right now in our culture, I don’t know what is. A story that reminds us that forgiveness is the way forward. That the heart of God is not about canceling others when they make a mistake.”

It’s a sermon that could be delivered in a Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran or RCA church without change because of its focus on broad, agreed-upon Christian beliefs.

Despite being a part of a subgroup of colleges showing overall slight growth over the past decade, Hope has seen a slight dip, down to 3,061 in 2020 from 3,202 students in 2010. Michigan is among the hardest hit states with a shrinking number of college age students, a demographic trend that has nearly every Michigan school — public and private — scrambling.

Angelique Gaddy fondly remembers Hope’s chapel services and the role they played in getting her to campus. She attended from 2013 to 2017 and was active in groups, including in the Black Student Union.

“We went to chapel (on her campus visit). You had to be there. I had never experienced something like that. It wasn’t mandatory, so people don’t have to be there, but it was full,” she said. “It told me that when you’re here, Angelique, you’ll be taken care of spiritually.”

Gaddy, who went to South Christian High School in nearby Grand Rapids, was a star basketball player who was looking at smaller Division I or large Division II schools where she could play. The chapel service was among the conditions that caused her to change her focus and enroll at Hope, a Division III school.

“The level of diversity is so wide,” she said. “Yes, we are a private Christian campus but we have a culture that all are welcome — not just welcome, but supported. Hope today is probably not the Hope you traditionally know. We’ve been through some hard changes.”

Hope was founded to serve the second wave of Dutch Reformed immigrants who arrived during the middle and latter part of the 19th century and settled in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. The eastern Reformed Church in America sent money and people to sustain the college, which basically prepared future pastors, missionaries, teachers and other local community leaders. It struggled with enrollment through the end of World War II. Its student body was mostly students from Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian and other Protestant churches in the Midwest, as were its professors.

That changed in the 1960s and 1970s as the student body and faculty diversified and Hope moved from being a denominational college to a broader Christian college with a Reformed heritage.

There were still struggles on campus about beliefs, particularly on topics like homosexuality. There were student protests trying to get Hope to broaden its viewpoints in 1999. In 2005, a prominent Hope professor advocated for gay marriage and took on evangelical heavyweights. Then-Hope President James Bultman told the Free Press at the time that while he had disagreements with the professor, no action was being taken against him.

Then, in 2018, the college’s board approved an identity statement that reaffirmed its wide range of faith options.

“The college’s board, faculty, administration and staff are committed to the historic Christian faith as expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the ancient church, especially the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, which Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox hold in common,” the statement said. That statement makes no claims about what students have to believe — in fact, it says at one point students of no faith may attend — but is clear that the college itself invites a Christian faith.

While Hope and Grace have institutional Christian faith, there are a number of small private schools across the Midwest that have no institutional faith, even while encouraging their students to ponder it.

‘My job isn’t to convert or to condemn’

On a sunny, but still a bit chilly, spring Saturday morning in mid-Michigan, a man in a kilt steps up to the portable music stand serving as his podium just in front of the steps leading to the 80-year-old chapel. A few dozen young men, all dressed in athletic gear — black pants and maroon sweatshirts — sit on folding chairs several feet apart from each other in a large half-moon.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Alma College football coach Jason Couch tells his players, 2½ hours before they are to take the field for a COVID-19-delayed-and-shortened season. “I’m very proud to be standing in front of you. Enjoy today. Enjoy being together. Enjoy Chappie’s message.”

As Couch walks away from the front, Andrew Pomerville, also wearing a kilt, take his place. Pomerville, Alma’s senior chaplain and founding director of the Center for Campus and Community Engagement, who is also a Presbyterian minister, welcomes the players to football chapel, a tradition before home games at the liberal arts college, located about two hours northwest of Detroit. Normally held inside and in the fall, this ceremony is being held outside in the spring after COVID-19 canceled the fall season and shifted it to the spring. There wasn’t enough space inside to keep distance requirements, so a temporary sound system was set up outdoors.

“The intention (of the chapel) is for each of you to take time to reflect,” Pomerville tells the players. “This is not a time I need you to convert.”

For the next several minutes, Pomerville talks to the players about coming together as a team. As he references a Bible passage, he notes it’s common in his faith tradition to turn to the Bible, but understands if that’s not the case for all those in attendance.

Pomerville and Couch are wearing kilts to celebrate the college’s Scottish tradition. Later, the marching band will perform in kilts during the game.

In 1886, members of the Presbyterian Synod of Michigan met at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids to form a church-affiliated college. That college became Alma. In its early years, Alma was known as the “Fighting Presbyterians” or the “Maroon and Cream.” Then in 1931, students were asked to come up with new nickname. “The Scots” won, building on the Presbyterian Church’s original founding in Scotland. In 1938, the school’s marching band became known as the Kiltie Band. Band members wore “Royal MacPherson kilts — the tartan used by the early Presbyterian Church leaders in Scotland,” according to the school’s website.

While Alma still has a formal covenant with the Presbyterian Synod, the school has no statement of faith or beliefs students have to sign. There are no mandatory chapel services, although there are voluntary interfaith services and Bible studies held throughout the week. There’s no advantage in getting admitted to the school for anyone who goes to a Presbyterian church. There are no college-sponsored scholarships for Presbyterian students.

Like many small colleges, Alma has been battling to keep enrollment up. Unlike many, it’s been relatively successful. Comparing fall 2020 with fall 2000, enrollment is up about 2%.

Alma matches the trajectory for most small private schools — once a religious school, now secular. However, unlike the majority of these secular schools, Alma President Jeff Abernathy has been pushing in recent years for the school to increase its work with students on spirituality, even while staying away from one particular religion or denomination, believing it fits with the school’s emphasis on the whole student.

Pomerville came back to his alma mater to serve as chaplain because of that shift. Despite a deep background in the Presbyterian church, he doesn’t see himself as pushing that denomination.

“My job isn’t to convert (students) or to condemn them,” he said in an interview. “I’m meant to be a listening ear.”

His job is also to connect students. So if a student is interested in learning more about Islam, he will connect them with an imam. If a student wants to learn more about Judaism, he connects them with a rabbi. If they want to know about Presbyterianism, he’s happy to talk.

“A lot of places are faith-based, but dogmatic,” he said. “I want you to walk in and feel like you belong … and then try it out and see if you can practice it and that leads to belief. Jesus seems very intent to bring people into community. That’s what we are doing.”

Back in front of the chapel steps, as Pomerville is wrapping up his message, the sound of bagpipes draws closer as a trio of pipers arrive to escort the players over to the football field.

“When you hear those pipes, follow them and know that you are not alone,” Pomerville tells the players.

“If you are not of a tradition that prays, don’t feel you have to,” he says as he starts the same prayer he always recites to end football chapel:

Help them all to compete with fairness in their hearts and minds and give them the grace to accept success or defeat.

Protect their health and bodies as they challenge, tackle and run today.

Watch over all those present, the spectators young and old, and our nearest and dearest families who have prepared, sacrificed for, and supported these players from first game until now.

May this game celebrate football and be enjoyable for all.

In God’s love we pray,


A different perspective

In early 2019, a couple dozen of the nation’s Christian colleges, universities and seminaries, along with a few Bible colleges, gathered in Nashville to hash out what would become the International Alliance for Christian Education. The group formally started in January 2020, becoming a secondary option to the broader Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which has been around since 1976.

Among the charter members of the IACE was Louisiana College, which left the CCCU in 2019 over the CCCU’s support for “Fairness for All” legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of federally protected classes. In 2015, other schools had left the CCCU over the issue of same-sex marriage.

Included in the group’s formation meeting in Nashville was Ohio’s Cedarville University, one of the fastest growing private liberal arts colleges in the nation. It had been a member of the CCCU, but left in 2016 over differences on the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Cedarville officials declined a Free Press request to talk for this report.

Cedarville was among many colleges with tight rules on what students could and couldn’t do. Like many peer colleges across the Midwest, Cedarville relaxed those rules leading into the 2000s and was becoming known as moving a little more to the center of the ideological spectrum.

However, in 2012, a fundamentalist Bible professor was fired, drawing into public the battle lines over the direction of the school that led to the president leaving and a new president coming in. That new president, Thomas White, has led a return to a more conservative stance, including bringing in a number of Bible professors from Southern Baptist Convention seminaries and seeing more liberal Bible professors depart. During this time period, as it returned to its more conservative roots, enrollment jumped, climbing nearly 25% from fall 2010 to fall 2020, according to federal databases.

The enrollment growth jibes with an academic study published in January in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology that looked at subgroups within the CCCU.

It found that the “least distinctive” (those schools with the fewest requirements regarding chapel attendance, number of Bible classes that had to be taken, lifestyle covenant, etc.) got the most total applications, but those with more requirements had the highest yield rates, or greatest percentage of students who applied, were accepted and showed up on campus.

“Students who apply to the most religiously distinctive institutions are looking for a specific kind of college experience, and they often begin the admissions process with a relatively high degree of alignment between their personal beliefs and the mission and character of the institution,” Rine, the North Greenville University professor and an author of the study, told the Free Press.

“As private institutions, faith-based colleges and universities must demonstrate to prospective students what makes their college experience special and therefore worth any tuition premium they may charge above public alternatives. While the most religiously distinctive institutions tend to serve smaller markets, they are best able to demonstrate their unique character — and thus unique value — to prospective students.”

Despite a number of its schools leaving the CCCU, the new organization isn’t competing with it, IACE President David Dockery, himself a former chairman of the CCCU board, said in an interview.

“We are not a rival,” he said.

“The CCCU (schools are) self-identifying as Christian, but not much more than that,” Dockery said. “The IACE holds to traditional creeds of Christianity.” The IACE “holds to the sanctity of life and marriage.”

The IACE schools also work hard to integrate the Bible into all fields. “That means more than just starting class with a prayer, as good as that is,” Dockery said. “It gives the faculty member the framework to ask the right questions. Our purpose is not to shield students from the issues of the day, it’s to help them think about them from a different point of view.”

Despite the changes ongoing in the broader culture, those at the more conservative colleges see a role going forward and students still walking their campuses.

“One of the good things about higher education is its commitment to pluralism in the types of institutions,” Dockery said. “If that is the case, there should be a place at the table — not necessarily the main spot, but a seat — for (Christian higher education). We have an alternative to (other institutions) and that’s why we are attractive to students.”

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