The question facing universities looking to compete in the booming market for online higher education is not so much how to do it, but how to distinguish themselves from the rest.
In this, Christian universities appear to have a built-in advantage. And many are seizing the opportunity to expand their footprint.
“Given the relatively strong religious character of much of the U.S. population, and an ever more crowded online market, the schools that are faith-based in some strong sense” have an advantage over others, the majority of whom have built “more generic programs that don’t have any strong affiliation with a demographic group or belief system,” says Richard Garrett, an online learning analyst for the consulting group Eduventures.
Investing heavily in online has already allowed some institutions to enroll many more students than they ever could have hoped to at a physical campus. Grand Canyon University, which enrolled about 3,500 students at its peak as a traditional university in the mid-1990s, was forced to reinvent itself as a for-profit online university earlier this decade after coming close to financial ruin. Now it serves 36,000 students, about 90 percent of whom are distance learners.
Grand Canyon is not the only Christian institution taking cues from the for-profit sector in an effort to maximize the market for online education. Indiana Wesleyan University years ago enlisted a subsidiary of the Apollo Group, the company that owns the for-profit juggernaut University of Phoenix, to help with online recruitment. That subsidiary, an online-education consulting firm called the Institute for Professional Development, has 17 other higher-education partners, most of them Christian institutions.
More recently, the Mid-America Christian University recruited Maurice (Buddy) Shoe, an Apollo Group alumnus and expert in for-profit higher education, to serve as vice president for enrollment. Shoe says the university is using an aggressive marketing strategy to try to grow the 80-percent-online student body from its current 1,200 enrollment to 5,000 over the next five years.
Meanwhile, online enrollment at the nonprofit Liberty University has boomed to 45,000 — nearly twice as many online students as the 25,000 that its late televangelist founder, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr., prescribed as a goal only three years ago, and significantly more than its 12,000 or so on-campus learners.
“More and more Christian schools I know through connections, if they’re not already doing [online education], they’re talking about it,” says Shoe, the Mid-America enrollment executive. “And the market’s demanding it.”
The combination of America’s religious character, its large and well-organized evangelical population, its sophisticated online education market, and the big-tent approach to Christian education taken by many of its faith-based universities has set the stage for rapid expansion of Christian-oriented distance learning, says Garrett, whose firm has worked with universities such as Liberty and Mid-America on their online strategies.
All of this is exciting for evangelicals, says Carlos Campo, the incoming president of Regent University, an institution in Virginia founded by the televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson that boasts 4,900 students, about 55 percent of whom are online.
“I think that evangelicals tend, very often, to look at numbers as being important,” Campo says. Being able to increase the number of Christian-educated graduates in the world via the scale afforded by online education, he says, is cause for enthusiasm in many evangelical circles.
The expansion of Christian online learning might be of particular interest to families that are leery of the secular education provided by the nation’s public schools, Campo says. “There’s a built-in market of folks who say, ‘Is there somewhere in the virtual sphere where I can send my child where they can transition directly from a home-schooled environment into a collegiate environment and never leave the home?’ ” he says.
Hard to Replicate Online?
But to what degree can a Christian university actually foster the same religious character in its online students as it can in its residential students?
The task is not as daunting as it was even five years ago, says Kathy Player, the president of Grand Canyon University. “Nowadays, with technology, you can bring in so much of what you do [on campus],” she says. For example, Grand Canyon offers its online students Bible study sessions with a chaplain through its learning-management system.
It also streams its chapel services, as do many similar institutions. They also often pepper their learning portals with inspirational passages from scripture, and provide channels for online students to submit prayer requests from their fellow students. Institutions that require faculty to sign a statement of faith and instruct them to teach various subjects through the prism of Christianity tend to require the same of their online instructors. Regent University offers special training to its online faculty on how to replicate a Christianity-flavored course in an online environment.
Weaving a Christian perspective into the fabric of course design is not unique to Regent, nor is it limited to religious studies courses. While some students attend faith-based institutions to study religious philosophy, many are studying the same subjects as their peers at nonreligious institutions (degrees in business, marketing, and health care are among the most popular at a number of Christian institutions, as elsewhere). But the point of a Christian college education is not to pray before and after class while doing everything else the same, Campo says; it is to make Christian identity part of the way subjects are taught.
There is also the extracurricular component, which online Christian universities are also working to replicate. Liberty University offers online Bible studies through its online ministry — as well as links to Christian-themed articles offering counsel on non-academic subjects such as marriage, personal finance, “purity,” and “cultural issues.” Indiana Wesleyan University’s online learning portal includes links to external, Christian life-management sites such as Christianity Today, Purpose Driven Connection, and Crosswalk.com.
But Campo, the incoming Regent University president, says that replicating the ethos of a faith-based campus in a distance-learning context has been difficult. Regent uses a metric it calls a “spirituality index” to measure the spiritual health of its students on campus and online by tracking how well they are attaining their spiritual goals. While the index is too new to have produced any conclusive data, “Our anecdotal sense is that we’re not doing as well in that environment,” Campo says.
“I think that’s where college presidents at Christian schools have real concerns,” he says, citing conversations with other Christian college officials with respect to their own observations about the spiritual vitality of their online students relative to traditional ones.
However, Campo says Regent and its peers remain committed to trying to replicate the Christian college experience online, and are optimistic about their ability to do so as new strategies are formulated and online learning environments become more robust.
"We don’t want to be left out of the conversation," he says. "So making sure that we are duplicating... in the virtual environment what we have on campus, that’s a critical goal.”