Could Looking Beyond Adventist Students Solve Adventist Higher Ed Enrollment Problem?

The thirteen Seventh-day Adventist schools and colleges in North America in aggregate have seen an approximately 2% enrollment drop over the last five years. For Loma Linda University Health President Richard Hart, a possible solution may be found outside of Adventism.

In his April 6 presidential newsletter, “Being distinctive or being inclusive?”, Dr. Hart said that he and his colleagues in Adventist Higher Education have begun to ask, “Has the time come when we should openly invite students of other faiths to join our campuses as we look to share our message and strengthen our academic offerings?”

Questions of distinctiveness and inclusivity arose during a recent meeting of the presidents and senior leaders of Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities in North America. The meetings considered how to solve the problem of Adventism’s declining higher ed enrollment.

Hart’s “Notes from the President” bulletin called the multi-day meeting “sobering.” He noted that despite spending “hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars annually trying to attract prospective Adventist students from high schools and elsewhere that might be interested in our programs,” enrollment numbers continue their downward trend across the board.

For Adventist K-12 schools, long considered the “pipeline” for Adventist colleges and universities, declining enrollment has caused the closure of 274 schools in fifteen years. Over 20,000 students throughout the North American Division have been impacted by a school’s closure, according to NAD Vice President for Education, Larry Blackmer.

Atlantic Union College lost its baccalaureate programs when it failed to secure accreditation in 2011. While other NAD institutions have maintained their accreditation, but slipping enrollment presents a systemic problem.

“It is partly national demographics,” Hart said, “with declining students reaching college age across the country, and partly changing patterns of education, with more online educational options.” However, for Adventist and other faith-based private institutions cost is becoming a big factor. Statistics presented by North American Division's Education Task Force during the October 2015 Year-end Meeting revealed that nearly 70% of Adventist households live on a combined household income of $49,999 or less with nearly 40% making less than $25,000 annually.

The net effect, Hart said, is that “collective enrollment in the U.S. Adventist higher education system has dropped about 2 percent a year, from nearly 29,000 in 2012 to 24,369 this year, a loss of over 9 percent.” He noted that similar trends have impacted other private and public educational systems.

Institutional leaders have looked for solutions in many places, from cutting personnel to bringing back industries like farming. They have also mulled consolidating the 13 Adventist colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. For Hart, another potential solution lies in openness to enrolling students outside the Adventist faith:

Many religious educational systems in this country started out rather exclusive, selecting students from their own church. But for most denominations, these boundaries have gradually relaxed over the decades. The Adventist Church has been one of the last to welcome students from other faith persuasions. Now these new pressures are forcing us to ask some fundamental questions – should we share our unique educational environment and philosophy with others who want to learn? The world is searching for authenticity today, for core values that have meaning and provide a foundation for life’s complex issues. We have those. We have a philosophy of education that has stood the test of time, and has demonstrated through the lives of thousands that real meaning in life comes from a healthy lifestyle and commitment to service. Isn’t this what the world is looking for today?

At the high school level, openness to students of other faiths has paid off for at least one Adventist-owned school. Seth Pierce, pastor of the Puyallup Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington State tweeted that the church’s affiliated school, the Puyallup Christian School, “enrolls between 160-170 kids, is 60% non-Adventist, grows every year, and ends in the black every year.” He reported that for this school year, the school has more pre-enrolled students than those currently enrolled.

La Sierra University in Southern California has maintained an enrollment of approximately 50% Adventist students for several years. While openness to students of diverse religious backgrounds hasn't proven the answer to the enrollment problem (La Sierra has seen its numbers decline since the 2014-2015 school year), it has provided new opportunities. Darla Martin Tucker, La Sierra University's Director of Public Relations provided insight into the university's philosophy:

La Sierra University looks at the interest among students who are not members of the Adventist Church in enrolling at La Sierra as an opportunity to fulfill our mission. Put simply, we aim, in the words of campus chaplain Sam Leonor, 'to make a life devoted to Christ an irresistible option.' This is true not only for our Adventist students, but also for those who worship in a different tradition or do not identify with any particular denomination.

La Sierra provides classes specifically for students of other backgrounds to help orient them to the Seventh-day Adventist faith: RELT 104 - “Introduction to Christianity," RELT 106 - “Introduction to Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs,” RELT 245 - “Christian Beliefs,” and RLGN 304 - “Adventism in Global Perspective.” Tucker said that the university is crafting a new "Spiritual Master Plan" for 2017–2023 that will include chaplain/pastoral care for commuter students, graduate students, evening adult program students, faculty and staff, and a comprehensive spiritual life development plan for criminal justice programs. La Sierra has also expanded its chaplain’s office to include three new assistant chaplains who lead in individual and group Bible study, weekly Connections groups, university-wide chapel programs, dorm and Friday night “First Service” events, community outreach and many other activities, Tucker said.

Similarly, for Richard Hart and Loma Linda University, being open instead of protective has allowed the broadening of the institution’s mission.

“As one of a very few faith-based academic health science centers in the country, Loma Linda has been attractive to students from all faiths for years,” Hart said. “They want a spiritual environment, a nurturing presence that openly talks about God and faith, about the role of spirituality in our lives and professions.”

Loma Linda, an institution of the General Conference rather than the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, declined to divulge its numbers, saying “Loma Linda University does not share religious information in regard to its students, including the percentage of our student population that is Seventh-day Adventist or any other faith.” However, Loma Linda serves students of many faiths with Mormons comprising the largest religious group outside of Seventh-day Adventists, according to several sources with knowledge of Loma Linda’s student enrollment.

“Our experience at Loma Linda has been that these students from other faith traditions make our campus more whole and vibrant as they search out spiritual values and understandings,” Hart said.

So should Adventist institutions begin looking beyond Adventist students to solve the enrollment problem? “Our institutions can each speak for themselves,” Hart said, “but the consensus seems to be emerging that this may be our best option, a time for uncovering our light and brightening the world.”

Perhaps the time of religious diversity throughout North American Adventist schools is at hand.

Jared Wright is Southern California Correspondent for Spectrummagazine.org.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7977

The idea that our schools are for just Adventist students misses the amazing opportunity for outreach through our schools. Think about it, non-SDA kids, even non-christain kids spending 40+ hours a week with Christian teachers, what else matches that? It’s very sad that this is now only becoming apparent.

Thankfully in British Columbia this openness has been happening for a while, some schools have 50% of their students being non-christians while others have high enrolment of Catholic and Sikh students. But of course our beloved Church never looks outside of the United States, because this whole article is answered by the B.C. model.

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I recently saw a catalog for faith based universities of all denominations. In that brochure, almost half of the institutions were catholic, the rest were protestant, but not one of them were Adventist. So, our schools are very much deficient in PR/Development.

Several of our west coast academies are already keeping afloat by courting non-Adventist foreign students - mostly from Asia (China and Korea). If not for these students, we would have experienced even more school closures.

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The question needs to be asked how badly do we want to try to stay uniquely Adventist in our University system? What are we willing to sacrifice in terms of size, academic programs and school structure to stay unique? What does it really mean to be “unique”.

My opinion is the need to survive will push our schools to open up to as many faiths/non-Christians as they can. We don’t have a waiting list of people trying to get in, let face it. In doing this, it will ultimately cause the school to become less Adventist.

Perhaps we would have had our chance to stay unique if we had built one or two Universities that represented the denomination instead of thirteen. BYU, Notre Dame and Baylor come to mind. All excellent schools with plenty of students and strong faith identities.

The most popular Methodist school in Southern California in the early 1900s is now known as USC, Harvard was a school originally established to keep orthodoxy in check, and was led by pastors and church. Today, we don’t even identify it with this, yet it is a world class school by any standard.

No easy answers, but it will be very interesting to see how it all unfolds.

Now this has moved up to the College level. Next (even now) this moves to the general population of the church.

1)Some are calling for the removal of all that don’t believe the strictest understanding of “Adventist-ism”. "Only then can the church grow."
2)Some are calling for opening up the doors and hugging everyone. Then the church will grow.

1)Mar Lago Resort; $200,000.00 to join, they won’t let you & I in.
2)McDonald; Any one with $5.00 and a pulse will get fed.

I don’t know if you want option (1) or (2) or (1.5). I do know if you are dropping 2%/year then you have not serving your market.

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In the zero-sum economy of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the economic interests of administrators and pastors stand opposed to the economic interests of our schools. By way of illustration, if you are a conference president you do not want student growth that might necessitate the hiring of more conference teachers, because to subsidize those extra hires as is ordinarily done you will be forced to shrink the budget allocated for pastors, administrative perks, etc. It is not surprising that administrators and pastors have chosen to safeguard their economic interests by closing 274 schools in the last 15 years.

It would be nice if our pastors baptized people, because you need church growth in terms of membership and gross revenues in order to strengthen the finances of our schools. But there are a lot of pastors with zeroes next to their names on the annual baptism lists who are able to retain their sinecures. In this ongoing conversation, there never seems to be much support for firing people. If Seventh-day Adventists were to cultivate standards of excellence comparable to what we might find in a major league baseball team, where players, coaches, and front office executives regularly lose their jobs for poor performance, then this ongoing conversation might bear some fruit.

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First, thank you, Jared, for staying on top of the higher education beat. The church needs its higher educational institutions to succeed. More than we realize. So keep the relevant articles coming. Second, I heard Dan Jackson say this very thing recently–that we need to invite more students who are not Adventists to study with us on our campuses–so I know it’s a current topic of conversation. I do wonder what an “inclusive” approach to Adventist education would look like in practical terms. La Sierra does provide a good leading example. I think we need to learn how to let go of some things and strengthen others. There are such high expectations for “maintaining the standards” of Adventism on our campuses that it makes it difficult to be hospitable to a wide range of individuals. Such “standard bearing” often boils down to various forms of behavioral management and control. Given that nearly all of our students are adults (with increasing numbers of older learners), this can be difficult on many levels. We have to sort through where we are going to tolerate differences in choices related to lifestyle and where we will insist on conformity to certain codes of conduct. I also think we need to find a set of Adventist values and a way to express them that can provide a hospitable space for diverse others to join us in significant work in the world. One faith-based university I am familiar with, for instance, uses its church’s social doctrine as a centerpiece for its institutional values and a platform for collaboration with students and faculty of all faiths.

WOW!!!

Sounds like the opening. Lines of Macbeth., Faculy to sign a pledge. The Admissions office to open the doors. I hate the first and love the second. The graduate School at LLU has accepted non-Adventists at least since 1961.

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I have the joy of living in the South Pacific Division. As was noted by the first commentator, the dilemma is answered outside the United States very well. In Australia - we have thriving K-12 Adventist education with approximately 70% coming from the broader community. An interesting correlation that I have been told is that this is a great evangelistic opportunity. Apparently in the last two years, one in four baptisms across Australia came from the partnership between Adventist education and churches. What an opportunity!

The same is true across the Pacific countries. Many of our schools have well over half of their students from the broader community and are having a strong evangelistic influence there as well.

Thank you Jared for your good analysis of an American issue - but that is what it is - an American issue.

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The present view is that Adventist colleges and universities are “safe” places to send our children because they perpetuate the Adventist worldview by inculcating dogma through direct indoctrination by instruction and mandatory worship as well as indirectly through controlled social interaction. Although some Adventists challenge this environment now, it would come under heavy challenge from non-Adventists seeking and expecting a more balanced educational experience. Other schools that have gone this route have ended up denominational in name only. Whether or not that is acceptable will depend on whether or not we wish to revision the purpose of our schools. That in turn is rarely decided by the rank and file membership but rather by those who hold the purse strings. Money has a very powerful voice in Adventism from the local church all the way to the top. This is evidenced by conferences refusing to subsidize the children of their workers if they attend certain colleges or universities. They are using money or the threat of losing it in an attempt to force their perspective on the denomination.

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The challenges we face in Adventist higher education are well described by the author and Dr. Hart. While Adventist education began in America, it no longer resembles those early campuses or the ones around the world that grew out of that reform movement. For many good reasons, Adventist parents and school administrators moved toward a more exclusive, protectionist model that focuses on confirmation (keep our kids Adventist) and matrimony (hope they meet an Adventist spouse in college). These are valid concerns of any Adventist parent. However, this model should look very familiar. It is the same one the Israelites embraced, and which effectively reduced God’s people to isolationists rather than the shining city on a hill that He intended. Ironically, this model also departs from the redemptive, evangelistic aspects of education clearly described by Ellen White in the opening passages of Education. While non-Adventist students are welcome on all 13 Adventist college campuses (provided they abide by spiritual and lifestyle standards), most do not actively seek these students as a redemptive or evangelistic opportunity. I am optimistic that we can meet these challenges by holding Adventist standards and values high, and that perhaps God always intended for us to share these Biblical, life changing values with others outside our community. The challenge remains - can this be done without losing our Adventist identity.

There may be more benefits than risk for our children to share their own faith experience with others that are not Adventist,and to expand their appreciation for all God’s children, even those that are not of the same faith tradition. Jesus defied the traditions of the church that censored and excluded certain classes from access to the redemptive power of God’s love. Maybe we should consider a similar approach to Adventist education today.

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Its really simple but we hate to admit it. It is not the schools it is not the students it is not the education. It is the families and the parents and the Moms and Dads who do not have a real interest or need for Adventist education. How humanistic of us to believe we need to create a system of education that caters. We are blind and naked and in need.

No Adventist college refuses students from other faiths or having no faith, and all of us also actively recruit students outside the church (I say “us” because I work at Union College). However, my personal experience has been retention of non-Adventist students is pretty low outside the health professions and English language programs. Recruiting business majors or pretty much any other groups? Often the investment exceeds the fiscal return if the students don’t persist past their first year.

There are individuals who demonstrate the opposite; usually very gifted students who find Adventist colleges and graduate four years later without having any previous connection to the church. But I am also fairly certain if the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities gathered together the statistics on retention and persistence of non-Adventist students outside of the health professions and English language programs, the numbers would be pretty depressing. Program-specific recruitment makes sense, and we put a lot of effort into promoting nursing and PA in our local community. But for most majors, the return on investment to recruit non-Adventist students is simply not there.

Which is not to say we couldn’t make it successful, but that would require a cultural shift on our campuses to be more welcoming to non-Adventists. The process would need a high level of commitment from all faculty and staff, and isn’t something enrollment and PR offices could even begin to accomplish on their own. It can’t happen over night, but a few changes have already started. I can identify at least two key issues that must be addressed to make our campuses better places for non-Adventists to persist and succeed. However, as an Adventist, I’m probably blind to innumerable other points of concern.

The first issue is the general education curriculum. Union College, like some of the other institutions, offers a religion class specifically tailored to non-Adventist students. But that’s only one of the four required religion courses. Once upon a time, I took Prophetic Guidance with a Baptist friend who was confused and put off by the course’s focus on Ellen White. I enjoyed the class, but I grew up Adventist. She later told me that her experience arguing with theology professors at Union for four years led her to a conversion experience … to become Eastern Orthodox. We would need to create an entire general ed religion path for students that introduces them to the beauty of both Christianity and Adventism, not teach them the minutia, controversies and (in the words of my mother) “gristle of our beliefs,” all while not making them feel as though they’ve been singled out for remediation.

Secondly, there’s a blindness to difference. Even outside of religion classes, the assumption by most teachers and fellow students that they are surrounded by other Adventists can feel very exclusionary. No matter how welcoming we think we are, there are still students every year who experience a sort of casual and unintentional discrimination in class discussions and campus life designed by and for traditional Adventists. Some of these students are not Christian, others may have grown up in the church but have been “othered” by their sexual orientation or life experiences that do not conform to the mold.

International students seem to have an easier time adapting than non-Adventist Americans–they come prepared for culture shock as part of their study abroad experience. The Americans aren’t as mentally prepared to adapt to a new (Adventist) culture. We don’t have to change our beliefs to create a more inclusive environment, but we do need to learn how to communicate better, adapt to disparate audiences and de-center ourselves to understand our own cultural syndromes. (Even my persistent use of the pronoun “they” throughout the comment/essay is part of the problem.) However, it requires an intentionality and institutional support that I have not seen evidenced as we budget our time, money and other resources.

Adventist colleges and universities can be mission fields to educate students from outside our church. But that is the opposite of the vision for our schools that has persisted over the last 125+ years. I’m not sure that support for a change of self-conception (from preparation for the “world” to mission field) would be uniformly forthcoming. It would require research, resources, a compelling vision and broad support from stake holders (such as alumni, board members and constituents) to make the changes necessary. Based on many conversations with parents and alumni, a change in mission would risk us losing some support from our current core audience. Part of the appeal of Adventist colleges for many parents is precisely because they want their children surrounded by other Adventists. And if anything, I think there is more pressure now from the GC and NAD for colleges and universities to be extra Adventisty than there was ten years ago.

Loma Linda, Adventist University of Health Sciences and Kettering College are all in a better position to treat their campuses as mission fields rather than enclaves than the rest of us. I personally would like to see Union College and the other universities more visible among public high school students, but it is not an easy fix nor a change in vision any of us can take lightly.

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Schools need to be as efficiently run as our churches. There is too much effort and dwindling resources that are being wasted in Adventist education today. A school that lacks quality will decline. A school with dissatisfied parents will decline. No marketing and enrollment plan can solve this issue. Inviting students from non-SDA families is not a new idea. As with other ideas it will not work UNTIL we tackle the two biggest problems that we face in growing and improving our educational system.

  1. Enrollment and Marketing Plan –. Every school should have an enrollment and marketing plan. A good plan is one that can always be adjusted depending on the trends and results along the way
  2. Effective Leadership- I have seen situations in schools where the head of school lacks the ability to provide visionary and inspirational leadership. Ineffective leadership will almost always result in enrollment decline. If the parents, constituency, faculty and staff do not believe in the leadership of the school,.it will be difficult to grow the enrollment without vision and direction. Student recruitment has to be a top priority for our educational leaders.

In the United States, government subsidized higher education grants and loans may soon be only memories.

While we are HERE, What update can anyone provide as to what is happening at
Atlantic Union College?
ARE there any students there? WHAT are the course offerings?
Is most of the money being spent on keeping the grass mowed, the buildings from falling in?

Carol_June–
I looked at that BEFORE I posted my question.
It does NOT say anything about WHAT is Going On there, outside of a picture or two [which is probably posed for the web site]. Number of students registered. Other information not usually included on a Web Site.

My good friend, Demetra Andreasen, came to Newbold College a few years ago, from her native country Greece, to learn English.

She was not an Adventist but became one and she married Danish Niels-Erik Andreasen, the immediate past president of Andrews University.

Demetra should be EXHIBIT A in encouraging non Adventist students to enroll in our schools.

However, if word gets out that our professors are MUZZLED, unable except to parrot the GC line, with no transparency of thought or discussion, due to IBMTE we will not attract knowledgable prospective students.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM is the HALLMARK of every fine educational institution.

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https://www.auc.edu/ics/Academics/

I have never understood why SDA schools are reticent to accept non-SDA students. For the last three years of my teaching experience I was principal of a k-12 church school with 82 students , seven of which were non-SDA (whatever that means). The only thing that makes them Adventists is the family they come from. At this stage, all kids have the same needs and cares. The church label adds nothing to their qualification for a Christian education.

A Mormon mother and daughter came to my office looking for information about the school. The girl was to be a senior, and I was curious why the change of school at this late stage. Her eyes were outlined in black and piercings here and there. I told them the school didn’t have uniforms but we did have a dress code that didn’t include the embellishments she was wearing. They ended up registering this girl. About a week later, she came up to me in the hall and said that the past week had been “hell” for her, but she knew this is is where she belonged; and that it was going to be good for her. She graduated and went on to a Bible school in Utah. Where was the harm?

Another non-SDA student, also registering in her senior year, with no thoughts of further education beyond high school, ended up attending CUC (Canada) after a promotional trip sponsored by CUC (now Burman University).

Most non-SDA kids looking for alternative education outside the public system have various issues - some social, some academic. They are children in need of understanding and a helping hand. Why this is objectionable to the SDA educational system is hard to imagine.

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I think the NAD must look at where the Pastor’s send their children to school. What about the Pastor’s that don’t send their own children to Adventist institutions whether it’s K-12 or University. It should be mandatory for Pastor’s to support at least K-12 education by sending their children to these schools if they want to be employed at our churches.
How can you preach of EGW writings on education of our children when you are not supporting your own Adventist schools.