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Nearer, my God, to Thee: Florida Christian colleges report record enrollment

Sun shines through the glass sculptures showing the seven healing miracles of Jesus.
Danielle Prieur
The Garden of Miracles sculptures portray the seven healing miracles of Jesus. They stand outside AdventHealth University in Orlando.

A handful of Christian colleges and universities around the country have logged some of the best enrollment numbers ever this fall.

That trend is also being reported here in Central Florida.

A senior reflects on her college career at a Christian school

Maddie Krills will graduate soon from Southeastern University in Lakeland with a degree in organizational leadership. She said she's so grateful she got to spend the last four years at a Christian college.

“I think being in this kind of environment has kept me accountable in my faith. I've furthered my relationship with the Lord so much in the last four years," said Krills.

Krills said her original plan only included public schools. But then she went on a tour of Southeastern and she was hooked.

"It was one of those moments where I knew that I needed to be here. I think the turning point for me was the faith-filled atmosphere," said Krills. "Students were so kind on campus and I had great interactions with staff during my tour. And the involvement options that were here to get plugged in just really solidified my decision to come to a Christian school."

Krills isn't alone in her choice to attend a Christian college. Many other students are making the same decision here in Florida and across the US.

This year, eleven Christian colleges across the U.S. had record enrollment numbers. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked Krills' school one of the fastest growing.

Students in Central Florida are choosing Christian colleges for many reasons

AdventHealth University in Orlando, another Christian university, also has seen a jump in enrollment over the last year. Nathaniel Velazquez is a junior studying healthcare administration at the school.

Unlike Krills, he only applied to Christian schools.

"Because I'm a Seventh Day Adventist," said Velazquez. "But even though I'm a Seventh Day Adventist, AdventHealth University, they accept all religions. And I really chose this university, because it will help me with my personal growth."

Velazquez said it's AHU's unique approach to education, to teach students to heal as Jesus did, that made him fall in love with the school. Illustrating this point, a series of sculptures called the "Garden of Miracles," depicting seven of Jesus' healing miracles, welcomes students and visitors to campus.

“They want to teach us the Jesus healing way and I want to serve that way in healthcare," said Velazquez.

Back in 2018, enrollment at Christian schools was steadily dropping

The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, which oversees some 185 Christian institutions, found more than half of those surveyed in 2018 had declining enrollment. That's only five years ago.

So what's changed that might explain this rebound in enrollment?

Amanda Staggenborg who is the chief communications officer for the CCCU, chalks it up to generous financial aid, support services and small class sizes, along with unique opportunities like Bible study and pastoral care.

“A lot of people recognize the value that faith brings to major life decisions and college is a major life decision," said Staggenborg.

A recent Gallup report found Gen Z students rank affordability and career preparedness as the most important factors when considering where to pursue higher education.

Answering the call, to "pick up your cross and follow me"

Back at AdventHealth University in Orlando, Interim Provost Deena Slockett said she also suspects a lot of students choose to come to AHU, because it aligns with their identity, one that they've grown up with, or one that they're developing in Christ.

"So while we're providing high excellence, and academic rigor and clinical opportunities, there's a transformative experience that happens at a Christian university that's different," said Slockett. "And so it's the whole person care, it's mind, body, spirit."

Danielle Prieur is WMFE's education reporter.
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