COVID, ‘Woke’ Culture Drive Enrollment Increases at Conservative Religious Colleges

A small group of conservative religious colleges is defying the national trend of declining enrollment in higher education and crediting their missions, as well as their handling of COVID-19, for the bump.

College enrollment nationwide has declined by over 1 million students since 2019, with the biggest drop in 2020, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in January. The decline has largely been blamed on students being required to attend college virtually or under restriction.

Even through the spring semester of 2022, institutions such as Yale University and Georgetown University shifted classes online and, in the case of Yale, even restricted students from going to restaurants off-campus.

Compounded with it all is the tendency of secular colleges and universities to maintain a campus environment with high levels of hostility toward conservative and religious ideals. For example, students at Stanford University attempted to block a recent lecture by former Vice President Mike Pence, and students at Georgetown Law School held a sit-in demanding a professor’s firing and a space to cry.

But while numerous four-year colleges and universities across the country failed to open their campuses to in-person classes in the past two years, or placed heavy restrictions on students if they did, and promoted liberal political activity on campus while restricting conservatives, a small contingent of conservative religious colleges went to great lengths to provide in-person classes and a normal campus lifestyle, free of censorship of conservative values.

The end result was record enrollment at several Catholic and Christian colleges in geographically diverse states, from Colorado and Michigan to Virginia and Ohio, all of which opened their doors for full, in-person classes over the past two years.

But as much as opening their campuses during a pandemic-stricken school year helped allay COVID-19-associated enrollment declines, the colleges were unified in crediting their unique missions as the true driver of their record enrollment.

After seeing a nearly 20-year high in applications and a 2021 freshman class of 629, more than 100 students larger than 2020, Grove City College in western Pennsylvania surveyed the incoming class to find out what it was about the college that contributed to the enormous jump in enrollment.

Students were asked to rank, in order, which aspect of the college — mission, academics, or COVID-19 policies — was most important to their decision to attend the small Christian college.

“What we found surprised us,” Grove City College President Paul McNulty told the Washington Examiner in an interview. “50% of our freshman class responded to this, and the three things that they ranked higher than how we were handling COVID were our mission, our community, and our academic excellence.”

Grove City College, McNulty said, is also seeing an even bigger increase in applications and deposits for the freshman class of 2022, which he said suggests the college has “found a way to connect with potential students better than we perhaps have before on our mission.”

“Our identity is resonating with these families better than it has before, and the COVID piece of it just seems to have helped in the process,” McNulty said.

Denver-based Colorado Christian University may have seen record enrollment in 2021, but the record freshman class of over 500 undergraduate students represented the culmination of a decadelong trend that long predated the coronavirus, which Vice President of Student Life Jim McCormick credits to the university’s commitment to its conservative Christian identity.

“We are a conservative, Christ-centered education, period,” McCormick told the Washington Examiner. “We are not moderate, we don’t wishy-washy it, [and] what we found is that as we get more niche-oriented, our enrollment is growing.”

Establishing itself as more “niche-oriented” enabled CCU to separate itself from other Christian colleges that McCormick said have lost their way and embraced a less “Christ-centered” education.

“I really believe that a lot of parents out there who decide that they want to pay for Christian college have realized a lot of Christian colleges have left their moorings,” McCormick said. “They’re not going to pay private school Christian education tuition to a school that’s wandering in their mission and is not as Christ-centered as they used to be.”

“As we strengthened our core of who we were, as a conservative, evangelical Christian college, our enrollment started to go up because the target market actually was more attracted to us, even though it was smaller than we had before,” he continued. “So it’s kind of interesting … you can be more niche-oriented and actually grow.”

“Niche-oriented” has been the mantra for decades at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic university in eastern Ohio, which made national headlines at the height of the 2020 pandemic shutdowns when university President Rev. Dave Pivonka announced that new students would have their tuition waived for the fall 2020 semester.

The promise of free tuition helped Franciscan University set a record for its freshman class that year, even as other conservative religious colleges saw slight dips before rebounding in 2021.

While Franciscan’s freshman enrollment declined slightly in 2021 from its 2020 high, Vice President of Enrollment Services Joel Recznik told the Washington Examiner that it was still significantly higher than in 2019, which he credited to a renewed focus on the university’s mission and unique culture.

“We find that we’re able to be competitive because of our uniqueness and our unique faith, life, and culture on campus,” Recznik said. “When prospective students visit here, and they go to noon mass during their visit day, they experience the lively faith life of the students and the faculty and staff.”

Franciscan’s offer of free tuition for the fall 2020 semester was a significant institutional financial commitment that proved emblematic of the stated commitment by numerous conservative Christian colleges to keep tuition costs low.

But Virginia-based Christendom College and Michigan-based Hillsdale College have seen the same enrollment increases as their competitors, and they claim to have pulled it off without accepting any sort of federal funding.

Christendom, located in the town of Front Royal, Virginia, about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C., maintains an enrollment capacity of 539 students. The college announced that it has had to implement a waitlist due to excess interest for two consecutive years.

Christendom Vice President of Enrollment Tom McFadden credited the increased interest in the small country Catholic college to its promise of normalcy and sanity amid an uncertain and “crazy” environment.

“There’s more people visiting, and every time they visit, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is a place of true sanity, of peace and normalcy. I can’t wait to go here because I don’t know what they’re gonna do with this other school, but I know what they’re going to do at Christendom,’” McFadden said.

While not nearly as small as Christendom, the Christian Hillsdale College, long known as a bastion of conservative education, has seen its own uptick in enrollment, which culminated in a 23% acceptance rate for the 2021 freshman class, down from a 41% acceptance rate in 2017.

The cause? A substantial increase in applications saw 3,398 applicants competing to fill an incoming class of 419, a number that represented a nearly 60-student increase from the 361 students enrolled in the 2020 freshman class.

Hillsdale President Larry Arnn told the Washington Examiner in an interview the increase was the result of students seeking to avoid “woke college” and realizing that “college and social distancing are opposite phenomena.”

“Human beings are made for each other,” Arnn said, noting how so many colleges and universities around the country failed to open for classes and isolated their students, which he said did not help students be happy.

“You can have a happy college if everybody in it knows what they’re getting and values it,” Arnn said. “Once in a while, I’ll get satirical and say, ‘Well, how can we fail with the competitors that we have?’”