LYNCHBURG, Va. — The small Baptist college that television preacher Jerry Falwell founded here in 1971 has capitalized on the online-education boom to become an evangelical mega-university with global reach.
In the almost six years since Falwell’s death, Liberty University has doubled its student head count — twice.
Total enrollment now exceeds 74,000, with nearly 62,000 working toward degrees online in fields such as psychology, business, education, criminal justice and, of course, religion. That makes Liberty the largest university in Virginia — with more than double the number of students at No. 2 George Mason — and the largest private, nonprofit university in the country. With a slogan of “training champions for Christ,” Liberty also is the nation’s largest university with a religious affiliation.
The surging enrollment for a bastion of Christian conservatism in the central Virginia foothills highlights the school as a market leader at the crossroads of religion and higher education. Liberty figured out how to recruit masses of students via the Internet years before elite universities began ballyhooed experiments with free online courses.
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Turbocharged growth inevitably raises questions about quality, and Liberty’s academic reputation has not risen as fast as its enrollment. About 47 percent of its first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, federal data show, below the national average of 58 percent. Liberty officials say such statistics reflect an admissions policy geared more toward opportunity than exclusivity.
“We believe that Liberty will redefine what is considered an academically prestigious university in the future,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., university chancellor and president. The school, he said, aims to be judged by how many students it educates and how well it educates them rather than how many it turns away.
A river of money
Liberty’s expansion has yielded a river of money. The university ended 2012 with more than $1 billion in net assets for the first time, counting cash, property, investments and other holdings. That is 10 times what the school had in 2006, putting Liberty in the same financial league as universities such as Pepperdine, Georgetown and Tulane.
Flush with cash, Liberty is building a huge, $50 million library, replacing old dormitories and angling to place its Flames football team in a conference eligible for NCAA bowl games.
“It’s grown from being a small Bible school towards the goal of being a full-service university,” Falwell said in an interview. He said he aims to carry out his father’s vision: “To create for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons.”
Falwell, 50, acknowledged that Liberty’s image continues to be influenced by the legacy of his late father’s political activism. The elder Falwell, who died in May 2007, was a polarizing figure — beloved on the right, despised on the left.
But his son said Liberty has turned a page.
“We’re not the Moral Majority anymore,” Falwell said, referring to the religious conservative movement his father founded. “We’re not a church. Our mission is to educate.”
Liberty weaves biblical teachings into its courses, but faculty members are committed to rigorous instruction in disciplines ranging from aeronautics to engineering to law. The university is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which also oversees accreditation of the University of Virginia.
Stature not as high
But in academic stature, Liberty trails many schools with religious ties. U.S. News & World Report ranks Notre Dame among the top 20 national universities and Brigham Young University among the top 70. Among schools with Christian affiliations and national cachet are Pepperdine, Baylor and Texas Christian universities and Wheaton College of Illinois.
U.S. News calls Liberty a regional university — a lower-profile designation — and ranks it 65th in a grouping of Southern schools.
On campus, students are prohibited from drinking alcohol or having premarital sex. They also are barred from watching R-rated movies, with exceptions sometimes granted upon request. But the school boasts a plethora of recreational facilities. And students can ski or snowboard year-round on a campus peak covered with a moist, white, slippery synthetic material known as Snowflex.
Three times a week, students and staff pack the 10,000-seat Vines Center arena for a one-hour convocation featuring Christian music, prayer and speeches — all streamed online.
An online magnet
Liberty’s brand is a magnet for many adults who want online higher education with an evangelical Christian point of view.
They are people such as Tammy Fox, of Chesapeake, Va.; Tanesha Townsell, of Pittsburgh; and Craig Conradt, of the Seattle area. These three candidates for Liberty master’s degrees in counseling traveled to Lynchburg recently to take short courses with professors face to face, an initiative officials said helps connect online students with the campus community.
Fox, 34, said she has 14- and 11-year-old children and works full time for a Christian ministry’s pregnancy-resource center.
“Online classes are the only way I would be able to return to school,” she said. “Being able to do my homework in my pajamas at midnight — that’s what keeps me going.”
Townsell, 39, is a mother of six. “My husband is an aspiring pastor,” she said.
She said the course work is challenging. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it was. A lot of paper-writing.”
Conradt, 44, a real-estate agent, said he wants to become a marital and family counselor. “I wanted a Christian education,” he said. “Liberty’s been doing it for a while. They’re proven, tested.”
Liberty had about 3,800 online students in fall 2005. Since then, its online head count has grown an average of about 8,000 students a year. The university became Virginia’s largest in the fall of 2008. Last fall, it had 74,369 students.
“That’s a remarkable statistic,” said John Broderick, president of the public Old Dominion University in Norfolk, which has about 25,000 students. “To scale up to that level, the resources that you would need to do it would make a real interesting business model.”
Liberty’s prices vary, depending on programs and course load. The school advertises on its website that an online bachelor’s degree costs about $39,000 in tuition, less than $10,000 a year for a full-time student finishing in four years.
Mark Tinsley, department chairman for science in Liberty’s College of General Studies, said online instructors engage students through interactive discussion boards and video lectures. Class size is capped at 25 students. Students are given frequent writing assignments, Tinsley said, and receive substantive feedback. Faculty are urged to respond quickly to email, to ensure that far-flung students stay on track. They also talk often with students by phone.