Declining Denominational Support for Evangelical Colleges?

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College
Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College – Creative Commons (Liscobeck)

To what degree do Protestant denominations continue to support the colleges and universities they founded? Even setting aside schools whose historic Christian identities are now nominal, what of institutions in a consortium like the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU)? While some of its best-known members are nondenominational (e.g., Wheaton, Westmont, Gordon, Taylor), most CCCU schools retain some tie with a mainline or evangelical denomination that might still regard higher education as an extension of its mission and ministry.

Yesterday I explored the one I both study most and know most personally: Bethel University, founded and still sponsored by the Baptist General Conference (now going by the “missional name” of Converge Worldwide). Using budgetary data from the BGC’s Annual Reports, I found that the denomination’s planned annual contribution to Bethel (in real terms) fell by 85% from 1984-1985 to 2004-2005. While as recently as the mid-1980s that contribution still accounted for nearly 6% of the Bethel budget, a few years into the 21st century that figure had shrunk to 0.37%. While one commenter who would certainly know such matters pointed out that many individual Converge congregations continue to send generous gifts to Bethel (and, of course, the same is true of individual members of such churches), it’s not clear that such giving has made up for the startling decline in denominational support.

But is the case of Bethel and its denomination typical of the CCCU, or an aberration?

It won’t answer the question definitively, but an article published in the May/June 2013 issue of the journal Christian Higher Education are helpful. Its authors’ findings would suggest that while Bethel is an extreme case, denominational financial support for CCCU schools has continued to decline even past the date at which my access to BGC reports cut off — both in terms of direct financial contributions (2008 being a pivotal year) and the indirect contribution of sending schools tuition-paying students.

Co-written by Perry Glanzer and Phil Davignon of Baylor University and the CCCU’s P. Jesse Rine, this article (the first in a three-part series) drew on a fall 2011 survey in which sixty-four of the eighty-nine CCCU institutions with a denominational affiliation took part. However, the response rate was dramatically lower for some of the most important questions: those that asked for data going back over a period of up to twenty years, to chart change over time.

Subsequent articles in the series dealt with faculty and student experiences, and this first one touched on everything from denominational requirements for presidents and trustees to the place of denominational history and theology in curriculum. I just want to focus on two elements: the level of financial support provided to colleges by denominations; and the share of undergraduate students contributed by churches belonging to the sponsoring denomination.

Jacob's Dream at ACU
Statue of Jacob’s Dream at Abilene Christian University, a leading Churches of Christ school – Wikimedia

Under denominational financial support, Glanzer, Rine, and Davignon report that about one in four of the denominationally-affiliated CCCU members in the sample receive no financial support from those church organizations. However, they add that most of those never have (only two reported a change in this condition from past practice); several were linked to the Churches of Christ, which, one respondent explained, “do not have a denominational governing board or institutional budget appropriations.”

Then here’s what the survey found about the financial support the remaining colleges do receive from their denominations, and how that has changed over time:

  • Only 48% of them provided actual funding numbers and what share of the budget they accounted for… On average: just a shade over 4%. Only six received more than 5%.
  • No respondents could provide the twenty years’ worth of budgetary data requested, but eleven (so, 17% of the denominationally-affiliated respondents) did share funding information from the past decade. On average these schools’ share of budget from denominational support dropped from 5% in 2002 to 2.7% in 2011. The denominational appropriation in nominal dollars dropped 20% from 2002 to 2011 — but almost all of that happened after 2008.

Then a second set of figures that interested me was student enrollment, and here there was better longitudinal data. (Though given some variation in response rates, Glanzer, Rine, and Davignon noted that nondenominational schools “may be more intentional about tracking the church membership of their students than their denominationally affiliated peers.”) 77% of the denominational schools with data on this subject reported that a plurality of their students belonged to sponsoring churches: 41% on average, though this figure ranged from 15% to 63%.

When asked for such data over a twenty-year period, the response was again low, but thirty-five respondents did provide them for an eight-year period. Two of these reported growing denominational enrollment, and two reported that it remained steady at their institutions. In the 88% with declining denominational enrollment, the drop-off averaged about 12%. (Several schools supplied data going back to the mid-1990s: all of them reported such decreases, averaging to 19% over sixteen years.)

Now, one obvious reason for denominations supplying fewer students and dollars to their colleges and universities would be that they’re experiencing their own numerical declines. While that may be true for budgets, most of the denominations supporting CCCU schools have either stayed stable or grown slightly in population, according to figures from the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). But several major CCCU denominations have experienced steep declines.

Here’s the list of all denominations providing adherent data for the first decade of the 2000s (I went with 1999 and 2009 numbers, give or take a year) and supporting more than one CCCU member: (the % is sometimes more approximate than I’d like it to be; where the ARDA had numbers for 1999 and 2001, but not 2000, I split the difference to get a rough estimate)

Denomination

Schools in CCCU

% Change Adherents (2000-2009)

Southern Baptist Convention

*17

+1.3%

Church of the Nazarene

7

+1.5%

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

6

-20.5%

Assemblies of God

5

+13.1%

Christian & Missionary Alliance

4

+18.5%

Free Methodist Church

4

+8.1%

The Wesleyan Church

4

+12.9%

American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

3

-8.8%

Church of God (Anderson)

3

+4.1%

Mennonite Church (U.S.A.)

3

-13.0%

Christian Reformed Church in North America

2

-7.1%

Zwemer Hall at Northwestern College (IA)
Northwestern College’s Zwemer Hall – Wikimedia

*Three southern schools in the CCCU are listed as having affiliations with state Baptist conventions but not the SBC: the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, Bluefield College in Virginia, and Anderson University in South Carolina. Because ARDA doesn’t report statistics for those state conferences, and it wasn’t clear if their numbers were folded into the Southern Baptist statistics or distributed among other groups… I just left them out.

Another ten denominations with reasonably complete data in the ARDA are affiliated with CCCU schools. Half grew in this period (all in double digits, save Bethel’s denomination, which ticked up 3%); half declined, three by 10% or more: the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (Huntington University), the Reformed Church in America (Northwestern College, IA), and the Missionary Church (Bethel College, IN), which lost more than 20% of its membership.

Adjusting the average change in adherents so as to give more weight the more schools the denomination contributes, so to speak, to the CCCU… The number of adherents in denominations sponsoring CCCU member-institutions grew by 1.7% through the Oughts.

Next up: why denominations should reconsider cutting support to their colleges.

<<Read the first post in this series


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