At a Time of Change, These Baptist Colleges Are Staying the Course

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Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Students’ religious sentiments are changing. Does that mean Christian colleges must change too?

Millennials are less likely to believe in God than are members of previous generations, the Pew Research Center found in 2015, and they are less likely to attend religious services every week. Only 41 percent said that organized religion played an important role in their lives; instead, many identify more broadly as "spiritual."

For colleges whose Christian affiliations have long been at the core of their identities — and their sales pitches — this is an ominous trend. Prospective students’ declining interest in organized religion has resulted in a "dwindling pool to choose from," says Craig Goebel, a principal at the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that advises colleges on admissions and marketing strategies.

To Mr. Goebel, the conclusion is clear: Christian colleges must adapt to new strategies and messaging, as many small colleges and women’s colleges have done. "Do you want students who are trying to find a church?" Mr. Goebel says he asks his clients. "Or are you looking for students who are interested in finding a college that will also address their faith?"

Different institutions adapt in different ways. Mr. Goebel encourages his clients to recruit not just students who already identify with a religious affiliation, but also nonreligious students "interested in a faith-based education who are looking for the education, first and foremost."

Some institution focus on spirituality. Marquette University, a Roman Catholic institution, has created the Marquette Colleagues’ Program, which teaches Jesuit values through community service, to attract students who are less religious but more spiritual. Others emphasize career outcomes. Providence College, a Dominican institution, has embraced a "larger mission of trying to help students find out what their God-given vocation is," says the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, the president.

Angie Richey, vice president for enrollment at Life Pacific College, an evangelical institution in California, has studied the changing demographics and interests of the so-called Generation Z — people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "Maybe some of our institutions have not been prepared for the cultural shift," she says. "This new generation is teaching us what matters to them, and how we cannot just adjust to what matters to them, but highlight what speaks to them."

Many colleges have pushed to do just that, even if it means discarding some orthodoxies. But some have chosen the opposite course: "doubling down" on their faith, as Mr. Goebel puts it. What does it mean to follow that path?

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