Best of RNS 2018 Education General story Institutions News

Liberty University is no longer the largest Christian university

The logos of Liberty University and Grand Canyon University. Composite of AP images by Religion News Service.

(RNS) — Since as far back as 2012, Liberty University has touted itself as the “world’s largest Christian university.” The claim has been repeated by journalists and prominent figures, such as Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. during his 2016 speech before the Republican National Convention and President Donald Trump during his May 2017 commencement speech at the Lynchburg, Va., evangelical Christian school.

It also appeared on the “Quick Facts” section of the Liberty website as recently as January 2018: “Liberty University is the largest private, nonprofit university in the nation, the largest university in Virginia, and the largest Christian university in the world.”

That line has since been removed, and no longer appears on Liberty press releases.

Following an inquiry from Religion News Service this week, school officials said it will erase similar references on possibly “hundreds” of pages across the school’s website, such as one that still appeared as of Thursday (April 26) on a page promoting its booming online degree program; that page was also changed by mid-afternoon the following day.

Liberty officials are downplaying the loss of the distinction they can no longer tout.

“We are focusing more on quality than the sheer size of our university,” said Len Stevens, executive director of external communications for the school.

Where the loss of the mantle of “largest” in its category might go unnoticed for other universities, it may cause more of a stir for Liberty. The university has been one of the highest-profile institutions of higher education in the world for more than a year because of the close connection between Trump and Falwell, a member of the president’s informal evangelical advisory committee. Falwell stands accused by many within and beyond evangelicalism for providing cover for Trump’s most offending behavior.

And what is now the largest Christian university? According to federal enrollment data Liberty also cites, that title in the U.S. — and perhaps the world — belongs to Grand Canyon University, a for-profit Christian school in Phoenix. Like Liberty, it has benefited from heavy investment in online education.

But it also differs from Liberty in several ways, especially in its approach to religion and politics.

By the numbers

A spokesperson for Liberty initially said the school enrolls “about 110,000 students,” including “more than 15,000” who take classes on campus, a datapoint based on a more precise number the school provides to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System database. The database is a project of the U.S. Department of Education that publishes school enrollment information as part of the National Center for Education Statistics.

A second Liberty official later claimed the number is “more than 100,000 students,” and pointed to the latest iteration of the data — from the 2015-2016 IPEDS  — which reported Liberty’s “12-month unduplicated headcount” enrollment (meaning every student should be only counted once) to be 109,921.

The same database release puts Liberty’s enrollment at more than a thousand students less than GCU’s, which is listed as having an enrollment for that same time period of 111,211.

Chart detailing the shift in enrollment for Liberty University and Grand Canyon University over time. RNS graphic by Jack Jenkins.

According to Tom Snyder, a spokesman for the National Center for Education Statistics, the 2015-2016 IPEDS numbers are technically “provisional” and may be subject to further editing. But he noted the data is reported by the institutions themselves.

What’s more, GCU spokesperson Bob Romantic told RNS that the school recently reported a new 12-month unduplicated headcount to the IPEDS for 2016-2017. While still unofficial, it’s even higher: 122,158.

Liberty declined to provide the 2016-2017 12-month unduplicated headcount it submitted to IPEDS. But Stevens acknowledged in an email to RNS that it no longer holds the top spot among Christian schools, and had been “supplanted” by GCU.

Different approaches to Christian education — and politics

GCU may be outpacing Liberty’s enrollment numbers, but school President Brian Mueller isn’t taking a victory lap.

“Anything that we can do to promote or help other Christian universities grow — that’s the most important thing to us,” he said. “That’s a lot more important than us being the largest. … We think the world of Liberty and we’re glad they’re the size they are and we hope they continue to experience prosperity.”

RNS reached out to both schools with questions for leadership, but only GCU provided answers from anyone other than a spokesperson.

Although Liberty and GCU may be kindred spirits in some ways, they differ in others. For example, Liberty requires students to attend “convocations” that usually include a worship element but GCU does not — although Mueller said between 5,000 to 7,000 students attend Monday morning chapel voluntarily.

Liberty is historically aligned with evangelical Christianity, but Mueller said GCU takes a broader Christian approach, noting that about 20 percent of students are Catholic. Although 70 percent of students say they enrolled in the school because of its Christian mission, he said, roughly 30 percent did not.

“We’re a university, not a church,” Mueller said.

And while Jerry Falwell is well known for taking public stances in support of Trump, Mueller says his school prefers a more bipartisan approach. He noted that GCU has a “significant number” of undocumented students who benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and that the school is “about immigration reform.”

Falwell has been largely silent regarding the DACA program, which Trump rescinded last year and is currently in legal limbo.

“We really believe that we’re so divided as a country right now, extreme positions on the left and extreme positions on the right aren’t helping,” Mueller said. “We support policies that help people — and especially people who have historically special hurdles to overcome.”

A shared shift to online education

The numerical changing of the guard between the schools, both of which are among the largest in the country, reflects their mutual embrace of online education — a practice some see as an extension of their Christian mission, as well as a way of addressing financial troubles.

Liberty’s use of web-based learning has garnered significant media attention, and ramped up after Falwell took control of the school following the death of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., in 2007. According to Inside Higher Ed, the school was struggling with debt issues at the time, but Liberty’s online program began to flourish under the younger Falwell’s leadership. The investment in online learning paid off, and contributed to an increase in the university’s net assets from about $150 million in 2007 to more than $1.8 billion in 2016.

GCU’s Mueller says his college’s story is similar. It was mired in debt in 2004, but it hired him in 2008 shortly after declaring itself a publicly traded company. He had just finished 22 years with the University of Phoenix — another for-profit school and a titan of the online education industry — and quickly expanded GCU’s online program, focusing on outreach to working adults.

When asked if he saw this growth as a part of GCU’s mission as a Christian school, Mueller said yes.

“We are a Christian university that has tentacles that stretch to 90,000 students,” referencing another enrollment number the school cites that is not the IPEDS number.

He argued their online program helps bolster the on-campus students (and vice versa), which the university expects to climb to 20,000 by fall 2018. Meanwhile, GCU has begun the process of becoming a nonprofit university again, with plans to spin off its online apparatus as an independent for-profit company that would manage the school’s web-based education.

Web-based learning has expanded to seminary education as well. One of the largest seminaries in the country — Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., — has made extensive use of online tutelage since the 1990s, and recently ramped up its online programs.

“Our student population has shifted significantly online,” said Kevin Osborn, associate provost for enrollment management and vocation formation at the evangelical Christian seminary. “Even those who would consider themselves a Pasadena student (on campus) … the majority are taking at least one online course a year.”

Liberty officials did not respond to questions about whether they see investment in web-based education as part of their Christian mission, but a spokesperson for the school noted that he is not aware of any plans to permanently “cap” online enrollment. He added that administrators want to keep the on-campus student population “under 16,000.”

Richard DeMillo, executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, said the shift to online for religious schools is “a natural strategic direction for them to go.” He outlined a scenario in which high-quality online coursework would allow a university to spend more resources on classes that reflect their unique mission, such as religious education.

“I’m a little surprised there haven’t been more,” he said.

Online education has encountered intense scrutiny in recent years, however. A recent New York Times Magazine/ProPublica investigation reported that Liberty’s web-based learning program has been criticized by former students and professors who say it can leave students “to flounder” and resulted in a “drop-off” in academic quality.

Di Xu, an assistant professor at School of Education at the University of California, Irvine who has published studies on online education, said she has seen a general performance gap between online coursework and face-to-face education in her research. Pointing to her experience researching distance learning at community colleges, she said that while web-based classes can produce results in many instances, it can be challenging for students who may not be as well prepared as others to thrive in school.

“The retention rate (for online courses) is much lower than face-to-face courses,” she said. She later added: “Many students, especially the young students, had a misconception that distance learning is simply easier than face-to-face.”

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

30 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Some news for Liberty-U and others…

    When you have 100,000 online students…you are not a real university (not that Liberty ever was)…you are a Diploma Mill !

  • CURIOUS (not furious), but do these statements hold predictions or ill-wishes for Liberty University?

    (1) “Where the loss of the mantle of ‘largest’ in its category might go unnoticed for other universities, it may cause more of a stir for Liberty.”

    (2) “Grand Canyon University … differs from Liberty … especially in its approach to religion and politics.”

    (3) “Liberty is historically aligned with evangelical Christianity, but [at] GCU … about 20 percent of students are Catholic.”

    (4) Instead of “taking public stances in support of Trump, [GCU] prefers a more bipartisan approach.”

    (5) Unlike LU, “GCU has a ‘significant number’ of undocumented students who benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program”.

    (6) Unlike it at GCU, “Liberty’s web-based learning program … can leave students ‘to flounder’ and resulted in a ‘drop-off’ in academic quality.”

  • Interesting. Liberty University Online is merely a “diploma mill”, you say.

    A “diploma mill”, by the way, whose online degree program is rated at #24 out of 100 by TheBestSchools.org, beating out OTHER online “diploma mills” like:

    Ohio State University, University of South Florida, University of Louisville, Texas Tech, Florida Institute of Technology, Loyola University, Creighton, CUNY, New Mexico State, Ball State, West Virginia University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Go figure.

  • Agreed…a lot of diploma mills out there.

    Interacting with a computer screen is not education!

  • Liberty loses around $4,000 per student per year on the resident program. They have to make it up online so that is why so little is spent on academics.

  • Rice is nice.
    For them.
    And me.
    ICE is no nice.
    To them.
    And me.

    I dedicate this “Snitching in Poetry” to you, Goat.

    By me, A Sheep of Jesus.

  • Gotta give credit to LU during the pre-election season for having both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump on campus to speak to the student body. This approach would never be allowed on most public university campuses due to the vitriolic and extreme reaction that would ensue.

  • Heads up bro

    (1) Sarah Jones, “Inside the Spectacular Implosion of Religion News Service: The country’s leading religious news wire hired a new publisher in 2016. Then it all fell apart”, The New Republic, April 27, 2018.

    (2) Stephanie Russell-Kraft, “As EIC of Religion News Service is ousted, staff fears loss of editorial control”, Columbia Journalism Review, April 27, 2018.

  • Bullcrap. No public university would turn away a front runner candidate for president to speak. LU only made news about inviting Sanders because it is so unusual for them to treat a Democrat in such a courteous fashion.

    LU is a wingnut finishing school. It has no pretension for academic adequacy.

  • If you are a member of their debate team, I suggest you find another hobby.

    You are neither refuting my assertion nor providing anything relevant to the topic.

    Btw Liberty U also has the worst law schools in the nation. So evidently it is terrible at putting out professionals who have to craft cogent arguements for a living.

  • Looking at your other posts…you’re a troll who only deals in insults and trite assertions. Not going to waste any more time self-appointed judges and mindless critics like you.

  • Whatevs.

    One should not criticize others for being a troll or making trite assertions when they say something patently false, deliberately hostile and fact free. Especially when they can’t be bothered to back up their own claims.

    But here you are.

    BTW Liberty can’t seem to handle open debate or differences of opinion.

    https://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/jerry-falwell-donald-trump-liberty-229964

    https://www.mercurynews.com/2017/08/21/liberty-u-grads-return-diplomas-over-trump-support/

    Btw any school with a “Creation Studies” department is not worth taking seriously for its academic credentials
    https://www.google.com/search?q=liberty+u+creation+studies&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-1

  • “(5) Unlike LU, “GCU has a ‘significant number’ of undocumented students
    who benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program”.”

    Funny thing is those students are probably the best off out of the rest of the student body in that they can’t get student loans to pay for their tuition.

    Small for-profit schools are heavily entangled with some of the more usurious lenders and many are some of the worst value for their tuition money in terms of post graduation employment.

  • Well, Liberty always left a bad taste in my mouth because of Jerry Falwell who founded it was an extremist who, like far too many, place more emphasis on Leviticus and less on the Sermon on the Mount. Sounds like Grand Canyon U (which I have never heard of before) is the better choice– less divisive, more accepting and respectful of the variations or interpretations of faith of their students. Now, I suppose the “largest” refers to only one single campus? Because Catholics, Mormons and Jews all have universities (and affiliated colleges and satellite campuses) which certainly would dwarf the numbers of Liberty and Grand Canyon (Catholic schools would have more students, Mormon/LDS schools would have more students, and Jewish schools would also have more students). So, it seems to me that the bragging rights are far less impressive when viewed from a broader perspective. I know they don’t want to hear it, but evangelicals are not the largest religious group in the United States.

  • Yeah? You enroll and you try taking the classes and then make that claim. I predict you won’t.

  • When it’s your money, I give you permission to worry about it. Losing money? They are non-profit. Why do you care? You are just upset, because they have a gun range. The money isn’t what bothers you.

  • When it’s your money, I give you permission to worry about it.

    I neither requested nor do I require your permission to do anything, Mr. Small.

    Losing money?

    Yes, Ronnie, losing money. As Tony pointed out earlier in this thread, “Liberty loses around $4,000 per student per year on the resident program.”

    They are non-profit.

    Irrelevant.

    Why do you care?

    I really don’t. However, it does amuse me.

    You are just upset, because they have a gun range.

    Not at all, Ronnie. I make frequent use of my local, off-campus, non-sectarian gun range.

    The money isn’t what bothers you.

    You’re correct here, but for the wrong reasons. It’s the religion that bothers me, the hypocrisy.

  • I am a current student at Liberty Online ,in the Helms School of Law program. I find it to be a pretty “HIGH- Quality” ,student oriented online class ,and can only offer you this : It is always so very easy for those who seek to find fault in individuals for one reason or another, However; as You seek to do so;You soon lose sight of the Most important of details;(which You have “Author”) that being : JUST AS WE ARE A STRONG NATION TOGETHER—SO TOO ARE “WE THE CHAMPIONS” at LIBERTY UNIVERSITY !

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.

ADVERTISEMENTs