Grand Canyon Overtakes Liberty to Become the World’s Current Largest Christian University

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 offensive 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 thank 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.

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SOURCE: RNS – Jack Jenkins