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  • Tom Marshall and Richard Jones

Top Trends for Christian Higher Education in 2024

Authors:

Tom Marshall, Academic Dean, Maritime Christian College

Richard Jones, President, Maritime Christian College

 


Christian Higher Education in North America is continuing to evolve rapidly in response to changing demographics, the general decline of Christian influences in society, and economic trends.  The pace of this change has been very challenging for Christian universities and Bible colleges to keep up with and shows no signs of slowing down.  There is an uncertainty and unpredictability about events happening globally today that makes traditional long-term planning (with a 3–5-year time horizon) seem outdated, inflexible, and ill-suited to the constant state of change. Against this backdrop of extreme uncertainty, we are nevertheless going to offer our opinion on some of the top trends we are forecasting for 2024 in the world of Christian Higher Education.

 



When the global COVID-19 pandemic closed traditional in-person classroom settings, most Christian universities and colleges moved to some form on online learning.  As the pandemic was winding down, a few schools returned to their former in-person learning experience or adapted to a blended learning style where in-person instruction was combined with online elements.  Most schools, however, moved to hybrid learning.


Hybrid learning takes advantage of learning management systems, like Populi, which provide virtual classroom space for students. Instead of in-person instruction, students interact with their classmates in the directed class discussion each week, complete assignments for feedback, and have the convenience of tailoring their learning while maintaining their employment and current place of residence.[1]


The flexibility, accessibility, and affordability of hybrid learning changed Christian Higher Education and how they approach learning delivery.


Maritime Christian College moved to a hybrid learning model to best meet new educational needs for the growing market of non-traditional students. A similar shift has also taken place to non-traditional students as traditional university age student attendance has dropped throughout North America.[2]




At Maritime Christian College (MCC), we have long held the opinion that for our college to fulfill its mission, we need strong and thriving local churches.  It is true that Bible colleges train individual students, but today these students are increasingly aware of the need to have strong leadership teams in place at their churches, not just a few biblically literate individuals who may be tasked to do most of the pastoring work.  We are increasingly seeing the churches that benefit from Christian higher education courses are the ones where their leadership teams take courses together.  This allows for a common learning experience, for common understanding of terminology and discussion of “best practices” ministry methods, and for fostering a high degree of team collaboration among the leaders.  In these cases, the local church leaders may be less interested in obtaining a degree, and more interested in practical training that they can apply immediately to issues facing their church.  These issues typically revolve around developing more leaders, fostering more disciple making, and tackling tough discussions about biblical truth in a society where many people feel they can “live their own truth”.


This partnership between local churches and Bible colleges also involves seeking more feedback from churches about their immediate needs in terms of training and equipping, allowing universities and colleges to develop courses and programs to meet these needs.  This is a healthy feedback loop that should be constantly encouraged, so higher education is able to evolve quickly with what the needs are at “ground zero” in local churches.




With more options for online learning, students are not limited by geography or, for schools offering an asynchronous learning approach, the time-of-day classes are offered.  This has resulted in a more diverse student background. A quick look at current student demographics reveals several interesting facts.


With hybrid learning, students can participate in courses despite great geographical distances. Students from Kenya and Nigeria can post online and respond to classmates in Canada and the United States. Several MCC programs focus on developing leaders for local churches and ministries where the individual may have a non-Bible degree and is seeking a deeper knowledge of God’s Word along with the latest in leadership training. This is why the average age of Maritime Christian College students in the current semester is 45. Because students come from a variety of backgrounds, work experience, and a range of ages, class discussions are enhanced by the combined life experience of those attending, making for a positive impact in learning.




The topic of “discipleship” and “disciple making” is still a major struggle for leaders of churches in the United States and Canada.  When we talk to church leaders about “discipleship”, many of them comment that they want their members to be more dedicated to basic spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, Bible reading, fellowship in small groups, and attending Sunday worship services.  Some pastors feel they are adequately equipped to train and equip their members on these spiritual disciplines.  But we believe that meaningful growth in spiritual maturity and in the number of people coming to Christ will not improve until churches adopt a DNA of making disciples of Jesus, who in turn are able to make more disciples.  This multiplication through multiple generations of disciples is a more holistic way to measure success in God’s Kingdom, based on Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20.  We believe most churches are not equipped with proper tools to make the transition to a disciple making church.  Christian universities and Bible colleges have a significant opportunity to engage with church leaders to help them with this transition.

 



Closely related to this increased emphasis on practical discipleship and disciple making is the imperative for students to immediately apply what they are learning.  While there is certainly important core theology to be learned around disciple making, the methods Jesus used to train disciples involved immediate hands-on application of his teaching. Demonstrating the ability to apply disciple making principles while still taking online classes is a core component of all the online classes Maritime Christian College offers.  Being a follower of Jesus and obeying his commands in Matthew 28:18-20 involves a student’s head, their heart, and their hands. 




There is a movement across the United States and Canada to start new churches in newer, non-traditional ways.  In fact, most of the church planting organizations we are in contact with are aggressively seeking new business models to fund new church plants.  A growing trend is to have leaders at new churches derive some or all their income from marketplace sources, lowering the burden on new churches to support a full-time pastor right from the birth of the church.  These Co-Vocational leaders also have a different approach to growing a church.  Instead of a heavy reliance on a Sunday service as the primary venue for growth, these Co-Vo leaders are using disciple making in small groups as the core growth strategy.  Higher education needs to be ready to provide more training and equipping to church leaders in these situations to allow them to evaluate new business models in more of a “lean start-up” mode.




Since 2019, at least 18 Christian colleges have closed or merged with other schools.[3]


Higher education will face the 2025 cliff with decreased enrollment of 15% based upon the declining birth rates since 2007-2009 recession in the United States. Canada’s immigration policy may offset this number, but foreign students have also dropped in numbers the last few years.[4]  Schuette suggests, “Creating outreach programs, student success initiatives, and devoting resources to prevent stop-outs, which occur more frequently at less selective schools, may work to ensure that students and their tuition dollars remain on campus through graduation.”[5]


Another option is to provide learning content for individuals who traditionally do not attend university, Schuette reports.[6] With the popularity of mobile devices there is a potential market for micro-learning where non-traditional students may take bite-sized content without the heavy price tag.[7] Tailoring learning to meet the specific needs of potential students may add to student numbers. The key for any institution is the ability to understand trends and adapt accordingly. Some Bible colleges, whose supporters demand traditional learning methods, probably will not make it through the big enrollment drop unless they begin working together for the Kingdom or have huge endowments to weather the oncoming storm.


Conclusion

Christian colleges and universities in the United States and Canada have faced unprecedented rapid change in the past four years.  This pace of change is not going to slow down.  These headwinds of declining student enrollment, demographic change, significantly more antagonistic societal attitudes towards Christian beliefs, and the needs of churches to embrace disciple making are putting enormous pressure on higher education institutions to adapt their business models to address these conditions.  Building a culture of adaptability and resiliency will be a critical success factor for Christian universities and colleges in the coming years.   



[1] Calderwood, B. (n.d.). Types of Hybrid Learning Models During Covid-19. study.com. Accessed 11 March 2024. https://study.com/academy/popular/types-of-hybrid-learning-models-during-covid-19.html 

[2] See the following article for a summary of US statistics and their impact on traditional student attendance: Bauman, D. (2024, February 7). Colleges Were Already Bracing for an ‘Enrollment Cliff.’ Now There Might Be a Second One. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/colleges-were-already-bracing-for-an-enrollment-cliff-now-there-might-be-a-second-one?

[4] Schuette, A. (2023). Navigating the Enrollment Cliff in Higher Education. Trellis Company.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] H, V. (2023). The Future of Education: 5 elearning trends to keep an eye on in 2024. eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/future-of-education-elearning-trends-to-keep-an-eye-on-in-2024 

 

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