How Christian colleges survived a year of COVID-19—and where they’ll go from here
On a Sunday in April last year, David Burney pulled out his computer to write the first draft of his school’s request for CARES Act funding. He made headway with the paperwork, then called the school’s vice president of finance to update her.
Kim Hadley picked up. “OK, Dave, what do you got?”
They talked, and not until the end of the call, when Hadley said she was headed to spend time with her family, did Burney realize: It was Easter.
Burney handles financial aid for John Brown University, a Christian college with about 1,600 undergraduate students in small-town Siloam Springs, Ark. If he was the only staffer briefly to forget Easter, he certainly wasn’t the only one pulling long hours to keep the school out of financial disaster during the early months of the pandemic.
When COVID-19 arrived, it forced U.S. colleges and universities into unfamiliar waters: Old formulas for calculating likely enrollment and expenses no longer worked, and campuses had to comply with ever-changing safety rules while avoiding becoming the epicenter of an outbreak—a potential public relations disaster. Education experts feared the pandemic would sink smaller institutions of higher learning already running on tight margins.
For Christian schools, the situation was especially fraught. Many avoid heavy debt yet have relatively small endowments, relying on steady student enrollment and room and board revenue. COVID-19 threatened that model as parents and students lost jobs or worried about returning to the close quarters of campus dorms.
In June and July last year, Burney had to set up financial aid for students without knowing whether John Brown would have a full fall semester or whether tuition would be reduced. “The financial aid office had to work from the perspective of, ‘Oh, there’s no stress, let’s try to make it work,’” he said.
As it turned out, John Brown and most other Christian schools survived the worst of the pandemic. To stay afloat, Christian colleges worked hard and got creative: They adjusted campus life to accommodate social distancing, received a boost from donors, found ways to encourage enrollment, and applied for pandemic relief funding.
I spoke to officials at seven Christian colleges and universities, learning how they survived the first year of COVID-19 and how they’re preparing for the future. Despite the year’s challenges, many are optimistic about the future, and in some cases adapting to the pandemic has boosted their confidence that they’ll be able to attract students in coming years amid changing demographic realities.
AFTER THE PANDEMIC ARRIVED, Bill Buhrow was assigned to lead a team planning for the fall semester at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. The school’s dean of student services decided to counter coronavirus stress with some comic relief: Buhrow designed T-shirts with suggested team names like “Pandemic Containment Squad” and “COVID Annihilation Force” in superhero-style font and showed them off during a Zoom planning meeting. School administrators instead named the group the “COVID Operations Team,” or COT, so he made another design featuring a ratty camping cot.
The COVID Operations Team went to work, aiming to start George Fox’s fall semester with in-person classes. Buhrow scoured each guidance document the state published and tried to extrapolate how guidelines for one part of campus might apply to another: Dorms followed congregate living rules, for example, while the cafeteria obeyed restaurant rules, and the fitness center followed gym rules.
To provide COVID-19 testing for students, Buhrow signed a contract with a small hospital nearby—then watched dismayed as its promised turnaround time grew from 24 hours to 72. Because of Oregon’s repeated rule changes regarding classroom social distancing, George Fox rewrote its fall class schedule three times. Buhrow estimates he’s written answers to over 200 FAQs to communicate the shifting rules and decisions to staff and students.
Buhrow jokes about how he suggested to school leaders that George Fox move to a state with fewer COVID-19 safety regulations: “They felt that that would be cost prohibitive.”
To ensure a robust fall enrollment, some schools asked their donors for help: In Arkansas, John Brown University launched a donor-supported “Close the Gap” fund. It gave 115 students grants averaging about $3,000 each.
Schools also cut costs. In spring 2020, John Brown temporarily cut employee pay and saved money on canceled travel and events. The school skipped hiring high-school students for summer mowing, instead assigning the task to university coaches whose sports camps had been canceled due to COVID-19.
The school added an online summer class program to bring in extra revenue. Hadley priced it at $299 per credit hour, which seemed better for marketing than a round $300 but complicated Burney’s financial aid calculations. (To apologize for the uneven number, she sent him 48 bottles of his favorite soda, Diet Dr. Pepper.)
Intercultural studies teacher Aminta Arrington at first didn’t like the idea of a summer program—it meant extra work for professors. But she changed her view after learning of the financial boost the program would give John Brown. She stocked her freezer with popcorn chicken so her teenage sons could cook for themselves while she recorded 36 Old Testament class lectures.
ACCOMMODATING HUNDREDS of students on campus during the global outbreak of a highly contagious virus took creativity. By the time students arrived for the fall 2020 semester, campuses looked different: At John Brown, students ordered to-go meals from a new cafeteria app. They ate at picnic tables under rented white pavilions or on Adirondack chairs around shiny metal fire pits. Small lawn signs reminded students of social distancing guidelines, displaying a sideways picture of the school’s 6-foot-tall president, Chip Pollard. Caption: “Please Leave a Chip-Width.”
Students no longer filed into an ornate, cathedral-style church for chapel. Instead, they sat on blankets and camp chairs spaced by white dots spray-painted on a campus lawn, singing along to worship leaders on a freshly built outdoor stage.
In a school auditorium, repurposed as a classroom, printed red stop signs blocked seats so students would sit apart. The signs’ border text: “Love your neighbor, love yourself, love JBU … Don’t love this chair. Shun this chair.” Students who missed class to quarantine could join over video: The school bought cameras for each classroom that automatically focused on the speaker’s face, enabling remote students to follow class discussions.
George Fox University also outfitted unusual classrooms—the school placed chairs on adjoining basketball courts, creating multiple class spaces. To prevent distractions from adjacent classes, professors lectured into microphones as students listened through Bluetooth earpieces.
All the social distancing didn’t necessarily mean the death of campus culture. Each fall at George Fox, about 800 students usually cram into an atrium for a school-year kickoff ’80s dance, but this year the school instead loaded sound equipment into a pickup truck decked with streamers and drove from dorm to dorm. Students boogied in parking lots in fanny packs, scrunchies, and masks.
Schools took different approaches to coronavirus testing. At Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., staff distributed test kits every Sunday. Monday morning, students spat into a vial and dropped it in a collection box on their dorm floor. Each floor’s spit vials were pooled and tested together: If a floor tested positive for COVID-19, Gordon could then test each of its residents individually. That approach let Gordon catch cases while skipping the cost and labor of weekly individual testing.
Buhrow estimated George Fox spent over $100,000 on COVID-19 tests. Some schools that couldn’t access or afford widespread testing in the fall relied on symptom checks through apps: Students answered questions about COVID-19 symptoms and exposure each day to get a green check on the app, which they flashed to get into the cafeteria and classes. Yellow or red meant they’d forgotten to check in or had symptoms and should quarantine.
Quarantining, besides disrupting classes, could get expensive, too: Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., had about 180 students quarantining at its peak and had to rent hotel rooms for extra quarantine space.
Some schools minimized the risk by enrolling some students online. In Lakeland, Fla., Southeastern University created an all-online remote school option after hearing from students nervous about attending during the pandemic. Almost 300 students enrolled remotely.
ULTIMATELY, NONE OF THE SCHOOLS whose officials I spoke to had to shutter for a semester, and none hemorrhaged enrollment as administrators feared. Out of its average undergraduate enrollment of about 2,600 students, George Fox lost only about 150 in 2020-21. Gordon’s enrollment actually grew 5 percent over fall 2019. John Brown lost only about 20 students, with 42 attending remotely for the fall semester (most returned in the spring). Iowa’s Northwestern College actually saw a record high enrollment in fall 2020, with 1,546 students.
Although schools spent big on safety measures and lost money on room and board refunds, millions of dollars in funding from the CARES Act cushioned the blow, along with additional higher education relief. John Brown estimates it will have just $500,000 in extra costs left over after getting $4 million in federal help. George Fox lost over $8 million to revenue losses and extra COVID-19 costs, but received about $6.6 million in federal aid in addition to money set aside for student grants.
Officials at other schools are also feeling optimistic. A July survey of university business officers by Inside Higher Ed found three-quarters felt confident about their institution’s financial stability for the next decade. Overall undergraduate enrollment in private nonprofit colleges dropped 3 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, but master’s degree enrollment climbed 2.5 percent.
Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, said COVID-19 hadn’t greatly disrupted enrollment levels of the organization’s 140 member schools: While some lost enrollment, she estimated most schools grew slightly. (Hoogstra said that altogether, CCCU schools had received $1.3 billion in federal aid by April 2021.)
Some schools did close this year. Judson College, a Baptist women’s school in Marion, Ala., raised more than $2 million in an effort to stay open but closed in May after a creditor called in a loan the school couldn’t pay. But Judson was already struggling pre-pandemic: It had only 12 new students enrolled for fall 2021. Concordia College New York, a small Lutheran school in Bronxville, cited pandemic pressures as contributing to its closing, but the Concordia system has closed or merged three other schools in the last decade.
Overall, though, 2020 didn’t see the spike in school closings some had feared. And researchers with the Consumer Finance Institute at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia estimated that although higher education will lose $100 billion in revenue over the next five years, private nonprofit colleges will fare better than for-profits and public schools.
Still, challenges lie ahead. If the economic recovery from the pandemic stalls, families may need additional help with tuition. The more contagious Delta coronavirus variant poses a threat this fall and may require continuing expensive safety measures. And looming above everything is the so-called demographic cliff—the declining birthrates that will result in fewer high-school graduates headed to college starting in 2025.
For some schools, dealing with COVID-19 has affirmed that the strategies they’re using can be successful in preserving future enrollment. While Christian schools still emphasize their on-campus undergraduate experience, they’ve been diversifying with online master’s programs and adult education they hope can compensate for undergraduate losses. At George Fox, graduate enrollment stayed steady this year while undergraduate enrollment dropped. Though undergraduate enrollment at Pennsylvania’s Eastern University slipped 4 percent, online adult education and master’s degree enrollment grew so much that the school gained 18 percent enrollment overall.
Hoogstra confirmed that COVID-19 encouraged other Christian schools to stabilize enrollment by diversifying with online courses and degrees. “In some ways, it was a forced experiment that has turned out to give schools really good data,” Hoogstra said.
John Brown hopes to compete with the plethora of niche majors at state schools by banding together with other small Christian schools. By sharing a few online classes, the schools can mitigate the expense of adding in-demand majors such as construction management or computer science while maintaining their own core Bible and liberal arts classes.
And while schools navigate these larger trends, they’re considering how to embrace smaller changes that the pandemic forced. Besides keeping its new picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, and fire pits, John Brown may continue holding some faculty and staff meetings online and continue recording and streaming classes so sick students or traveling student athletes can keep up remotely. (School President Chip Pollard noted that would require a carefully drafted attendance policy to ensure students don’t always try to attend class from bed.)
George Fox is also considering adding more permanent online classes: Bill Buhrow said that, by driving the school to remote learning, the pandemic showed administrators and teachers the possibilities of online education as another way to reach new students and add flexibility for current ones. “It showed folks what could be done, because they were forced to do it.”
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