Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Where Admissions Meet Faith: At Lincoln Christian U., enrollment decisions are a matter of dollars and devotion

(In late July, Eric Hoover from The Chronicle of Higher Education spent most of a day with me. The article he produced came out several days ago. A photographer from Peoria, Adam Gerik, came to campus on LCU's move-in day and took the pictures that accompanied the article.)

They've come from towns near and far, taking I-55 to back roads that run beneath green spires of corn. On a Monday in late July, three dozen new students have arrived at Lincoln Christian University to register for classes, shake hands, and look around. At noon everyone gathers in Henderson Hall, known as the "preacher dome."

Standing in the doorway, Palmer H. Muntz watches the crowd of families. As director of undergraduate admissions, he's in charge of reversing this small university's enrollment fortunes. Over the past five years, applications have dipped, and last year the number of freshmen and transfer students fell to 112—100 fewer than in 2005.

The recession digs deeply into this rural region in central Illinois. Sometimes people gape when Mr. Muntz mentions the university's annual sticker price—just under $20,000.

At some colleges, May 1 marks the final phase of the admissions cycle; here, it's just another day. Lincoln Christian admits applicants throughout the summer, right up until classes start. Lincoln had hoped to enroll 175 new students this fall. As of this afternoon, the university has 121 "commits," and admissions officials expect the number to grow to about 140.

Each year the university receives applications from students who don't think about college until graduating from high school. Some are first-generation students. Some apply after hearing a call to pursue a Christian education.

On this campus, admissions and financial aid entwine with faith. So it is for Nick VanMeter, who plans to attend this fall. A singer and guitar player, he has already attended two other colleges. Recently he decided to major in worship ministry. "He wants to tell people about Jesus through music," says his mother, Susan Lutz.

Money is a concern, however. Around a table in Mr. Muntz's office, Nick and his parents discuss the possibility of his living at home, at least for the first year. Room and board here run about $6,000. The university has offered Nick a $3,000 scholarship, but he can use it only if he resides on the campus.

Mr. Muntz describes the benefits of being here day and night. For one thing, he says, it's fun: "What would I have to do to convince you to live on the campus?"

Nick sighs and says, "I would need, like, $3,000." He makes $10 an hour cooking at a restaurant near his home, in Sherman, about an hour away. To live at the university, he would have to give up his job. Not a good idea right now, he and his parents agree. Mr. Muntz promises to hold the scholarship for him until next year.

Nick's parents asks about payment plans. Later, Mr. Muntz passes the family a brochure describing a loan-repayment-assistance program for graduates of Christian colleges. "You're looking at a career field that has the potential to pay very poorly," he says.

Nick nods. This isn't discouragement—just the truth. He knows that he can expect to make about $30,000 a year. He knows that a local church just laid off its music minister. And he knows there's nothing else he would rather do for a living.

The Sacred and the Secular
When Lincoln Christian opened, in 1944, its founders proclaimed, "The preachers are coming." It was a rallying cry and a statement of purpose: The institution was built to fill the region's churches with strong leaders.

Lincoln Christian now offers nearly 30 academic programs, including biblical exposition, business administration, and early-childhood education. It grants associate and bachelor's degrees and has a school of graduate and adult studies as well as a seminary. A new dorm for women stands near the chapel.

These days many students come here to prepare for careers other than ministry. They talk about finding a way to serve God in their chosen professions, a way to meld the sacred and the secular. Mr. Muntz recalls what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said about how one should pursue his or her chosen profession: "Set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it.".

Mr. Muntz, who has worked at four other colleges, has changed many things since arriving last year. New publications. Expanded scholarships. Revamped letters. Recently the university created "Red," a branding campaign that ties the school color to a simple phrase: "Live your mission."

This year, for the first time, the admissions office bought the names of rising high-school seniors—about 11,000 of them— who had expressed an interest in Christian colleges. And Mr. Muntz and his staff have increased their visits to high schools, churches, and college fairs within a four-hour drive.

Despite those changes, Lincoln Christian continues to rely on word-of-mouth marketing. Over the years, alumni and church leaders have guided many applicants to the university, which is affiliated with the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, a nondenominational fellowship of 6,000 congregations. Applicants must sign a statement that they accept Christ as their savior.

Like many Bible colleges, Lincoln Christian also reaches out to teenagers before they're old enough to apply. Each summer the university pays some of its students to work as counselors in church-run youth camps. Four teams of four students each fan out across the Midwest, spending their days with different groups of middle- and high-school students each week.

Counselors from various colleges are there to discuss faith, above all, but they talk up their respective institutions, too. "It's good to have a ninth grader say, 'That guy from Lincoln Christian is cool,'" Mr. Muntz says.

Brian D. Mills agrees. This afternoon Mr. Mills, vice president for student development, will drive four hours to Carbondale, Ill. There he will attend a weeklong meeting sponsored by Christ In Youth, a national organization. The event will draw about 1,200 high-school students. "It can be a pipeline builder," he says.

Lincoln Christian doesn't recruit students who have already committed to other colleges. Still, sometimes students enrolled elsewhere approach Mr. Mills with questions about the university. So he answers them.

He plans to encourage the teenagers he meets this week to think hard about their futures, to question their culture. On the last day, he will talk about Lincoln Christian. He's packed a box full of red lanyards, each bearing the university's name. He will hand out every one.

As the summer winds down, the enrollment cycles here have overlapped. Inside a building known as "the warehouse," Mary K. Davis, who manages the admissions office, tallies applications on the back of her door. The original goal for freshmen and transfer applicants this fall was 320. After a fast start, the university raised that goal to 365. By late July, the university has received 322.

Lincoln Christian does not require deposits. Accepted students state their intention to enroll by either completing a form or registering for classes. This year many accepted students were slow to do either, so the university mailed them a reminder letter, along with a T-shirt.

Mr. Muntz stops by to ask Ms. Davis for updates. One application arrived this morning, she tells him.

As they discuss a student from China who wants to enroll in the fall, Mr. Muntz's cellphone buzzes. It's a text message from a student who is working at a summer camp in Indiana. "We're in trouble here," it begins.

It's only sarcasm. The student reports that counselors from another Christian college have just given a presentation about their campus. During their talk, they cracked an egg on someone's head. The young campers roared.

How could the Lincoln Christian students top that routine? Mr. Muntz writes back: "Take the high road."

'Whatever It Takes'
At 2 o'clock, Mr. Muntz meets with Collin Mattingly and his parents. This morning Collin, a transfer student from Indiana, showed up to register for classes, but there was one problem—the university had not admitted him. Mr. Muntz had already reviewed his application, but a copy of his transcript from Vincennes University had yet to arrive.

As it happened, the transcript was delivered to the admissions office while the family was touring the campus. After reviewing the document, Mr. Muntz saw the Mattinglys walk by the office. "Are you Collin?" he called out. "Congratulations, you've been admitted."

The family is happy but worried about costs. In the admissions office, Collin and his parents huddle with Mr. Muntz, who asks the student a question: "Why are you coming here?"

Two weeks ago, Collin attended a youth-ministry conference at Hope College, in Michigan. After returning home, he sat down for dinner, where his father saw that he was crying. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Dad," Collin said, "has God ever spoken to you? Because he spoke to me."

With that, Collin, who'd planned on a teaching career, told his parents that he wanted to transfer to Lincoln Christian and become a preacher. He knew this would cost more than attending Vincennes. We will find a way to pay for it, his parents told him.

But finding a way will not be easy. Lincoln Christian has offered a financial-aid package that puts the Mattinglys' out-of-pocket costs at about $10,000 a year. It's a stretch, especially because Collin's younger sister plans to start college next year.

Talk turns to loans. Mr. Muntz explains interest rates. He describes the loan-repayment program but cautions the family about borrowing too much. "If I were looking at an engineering major here, I wouldn't care if he graduated with $30,000 in debt," Mr. Muntz says. "But you know preachers don't make a lot of money, and you would still need to go to seminary."

Collin's mother says a member of their church has offered to help pay for his education.

"Do you know how much?" Mr. Muntz asks. "We're probably talking hundreds and not thousands, right?"

They aren't sure. Mr. Muntz studies their financial-aid sheet. He notes that Collin's grade-point average is .04 away from qualifying him for an academic scholarship. He tells the family that he will see what he can do.

"It looks like you're about $3,000 short," Mr. Muntz says. "Can you afford to commit $7,000 a year?"

For a moment, there's silence. Ms. Mattingly looks down at the numbers. "Whatever it takes, it's gonna happen, because it's in God's hands," she says. "But seeing it is hard."

The tension between faith and finances has long fascinated Mr. Muntz. Ten years ago, he wrote an article for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities called "What Does the Bible Say About Student Loans?" In a revised version, he cites Romans 14:23: "Everything that does not come from faith is sin." Loans are not inherently wrong, he concludes, but students should think carefully before borrowing—and borrow only "in faith."

Some families would carry any burden to send a son or daughter to Lincoln Christian. "If God's your admissions counselor, you listen," Mr. Muntz says.

Still, God doesn't pay back Parent PLUS Loans. So Mr. Muntz tries to balance his counsel. "It's important to recognize how faith plays a serious role in this process," he says, "but it's important not to use that against someone."

Later he discusses the Mattinglys' situation with the financial-aid director. They decide to offer Collin an additional $3,000 in grants.

The family is grateful. Money is money, and sometimes it's also an answer.

1 comment:

Palmer said...

The article can also be viewed on the Chronicle's website at: http://chronicle.com/article/Where-Admissions-Meet-Faith/124151/