As students show up on college campuses around the nation for a new academic year, Colorado Christian University (CCU) finds itself entering its 13th consecutive year of record enrollment. As you may know, this is bucking the nationwide trend of declining undergraduate college enrollment. What is going on?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, (the equivalent of the New York Times for American educators) has referred to this decline as “the student slump,” “the enrollment crash,” and “the great contraction.” The decline has been noticed and highlighted, especially in the last two years, with the pandemic. But undergraduate enrollment was already on the decline well before the pandemic. The slide began in 2011. Between the fall of 2011 and the fall of 2020. Undergraduate enrollment fell 12.3%. But the pandemic turbocharged the declines. And now many are contemplating that a trend might not taper off with the end of the pandemic.
Why the national decline? Multiple reasons are given. Some still blame the pandemic and ignore the longer trend. Others say it is because of a demographic decline of eligible students in many states. Still, others attribute the decline to rising costs. But the big reason I hear from many parents of students is a growing loss of confidence in higher education itself, especially with radical agendas undermining the quality of academics.
Most parents who send their children to CCU did not themselves go to a faith-based university. But as they reminisce on their own college experience, they quickly express concern about the trajectory of their school. They will say something like, “my alma mater has gone crazy.” Identity politics and woke agendas are undermining the very quality of academic excellence. Free expression and debate seem to be fading away. Besides that, the topics of reason, wisdom and virtue are ignored. The curriculum is chaotic. The humanities have been corrupted. Too many students graduate cynical, despising our past, deploring our present and despairing of our future. Then they say, “Why pay $60,000-$100,000 for that?” Good question.
In his recent book, The Break Down of Higher Education, John Ellis, professor emeritus at University of California-Santa Cruz, offers a devastating indictment of the radicalized campus. He writes, “If you send your children to a university, you are endangering both their mind and their character. There is a real chance they will be more intolerant and more foolish after college than they were when they entered. When you attend an American university, you are taught to have contempt for America and its founders, to prefer socialism to capitalism, to divide human beings by race and ethnicity. You are taught to shut down those who differ with you, to not debate them. And you are taught to place feelings over reason—which is a guaranteed route to eventual evil.”
It is not just the cost of higher education that is bothering many parents, it is the value proposition of what they get for that investment. They are looking for sane and solid academics. And in our case, an education with a faith foundation (what we refer to as “Christ-centered” higher education). We are an unapologetically Christian, conservative, evangelical university.
CCU is not alone in being an enrollment outlier these days. Other conservative colleges (mainly Evangelical and Catholic) are experiencing enrollment growth as well: Cedarville University, Grove City College, Hillsdale College, Christendom College, Franciscan University in Steubenville, University of Dallas, to name a few.
What do these schools have in common? They are guided by Christian principles with a commitment to faith and reason, wisdom and virtue. They offer strong academics. They are committed to a liberal arts core curriculum. They have honors programs which push the humanities and great books. They emphasize teaching history, including American history and Western civilization. They are pushing back against the dumbing down and the political correctness of mass culture.
What they don’t do: Safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other forms of student coddling. They don’t stress victimization, teach nihilism or cast everything in light of critical theory and intersectionality.
It is not that these conservative schools are insisting that other colleges and universities conform to their standards. Rather they are grateful for and want to preserve the amazing diversity of American higher education, including a diversity that allows space for their schools to flourish.
And they happen to think that by going Ad Fontes—back to the sources that were at the foundation of Western and American higher education (such as the Bible and classical tradition) and helped create the best university system in the world—there just might be resources for an academic renaissance in the broader university world as well.
• Dr. Donald Sweeting serves as Chancellor of Colorado Christian University.