Recently I received a letter from a student who expressed concern about the growth of our institution. I responded with a letter to him that I wish to share with the greater George Fox community …
Thank you for the letter of concern you dropped by my office this afternoon. It, of course, addresses your concern for the growth of the university. I very much appreciated your commitment to the Be Known promise and for your desire to make sure the George Fox University promise remains real even though more students are coming to the university. You asked, “How does the president understand growth at the university?”
Growth through the years
First, the vision for the university is to be the “Christian university of choice in the Northwest known for exceptional life outcomes.” The more effective we are at delivering this promise, the more students will want to take advantage of the experience and education here. I think it is vitally important to recognize that the university, for the past 30 years or so, has always “grown.” In 1985, a total of about 550 students enrolled at the school and there were no graduate programs. Today, we have more than 3,700 students, including more than 2,200 at the undergraduate level. If you pick our size at any point in time over the past 25 years, the institution “grew” year to year. As it grew the institution became better and better, with improved facilities, a more prestigious academic reputation (11 national accreditations, whereas in 1995 we had one – music) and more scholarly faculty.
The institution today is not only bigger than it was 25 or 30 years ago, it is far better in many ways. At the same time, alumni we bring back from the late 1980s/early 1990s remember the close-knit community that was here during their time. It is true that the small community that existed then for those students no longer exists. It was probably true in 1986 that everyone knew everyone else; that is no longer possible. The point here is to recognize that each generation of students thinks about the experience they had when they came in as first-year students and resonates with how things were during that time. Our incoming classes for the past three years have essentially been about the same – just over 700. Thus, we have grown, but it has not been simply growth for growth’s sake. It has been very intentional with specific goals in mind.
Meeting a demand for professional programs
George Fox has been successful in attracting students because we make a promise that matters to parents and students and we also offer academic programs that are in demand – engineering, nursing, business, etc. Our competing Christian schools do not offer professional programs like these. In an age when students increasingly want to know how they are prepared for the future of work we offer programs that direct them and prepare them well. Currently, almost 1 in 3 students at George Fox major in one of these disciplines.
As we’ve added students on the undergraduate level we have added faculty, created new colleges, hired staff, and expanded and improved facilities. Our student-to-faculty ratio has not substantially changed as we have grown over the past four years. Thus, the evidence is that we have added faculty at the same time we have added students. We also are in the process of adding a new dorm and, depending on enrollment, perhaps another one after that. There will be a new dining hall in service in the fall of 2016, with the old dining hall being converted to academic space, with a primary focus on our College of Engineering. We have plans in place to accommodate further classroom expansion should it be needed for undergraduate programs, but all evidence suggests that won’t happen in the immediate future.
Trends in higher education
I do not know how much you know about the trends in higher education. There are fewer students who are graduating from Oregon high schools, and that trend will continue over the next few years. The primary experience of undergraduate colleges in the Northwest has been flat or a slight decline in enrollment. Simply put, we have drawn students to George Fox who would have gone to other institutions. (Keep in mind that the majority of undergraduate students go to college within 100 miles of their home.)
In your note, it would seem that your overriding assumption is that we can “control” who comes and who does not by creating some type of selection criteria that would exclude a group from coming to George Fox. How would one do this? Perhaps one might choose SAT scores so that only those who scored above 1150 would be considered for admission at George Fox. You could prioritize specific Christian experiences or denominations. The reality is that if we exclude some, there is a high probability that you or some of your friends would not be able to attend the university. Usually students who come to me with concerns about growth always believe that they would have been chosen to be part of the community. Would you want to create a system that would exclude “you” and admit others?
In addition, the way undergraduate admissions works at most universities one does not know exactly how many students will attend until much later in the summer. There are only one or two institutions in the entire Northwest that actually have the ability both financially and with their brand to control their student enrollment. In our conference there are some very fine universities – Linfield, Willamette, Lewis & Clark, Pacific, PLU, Whitworth – and most, while they have goals, do not know exactly how many students they will get until the end of summer. Enrolling students in this day and age is quite different from the past.
Addressing our marketing initiatives
You made two comments about marketing, primarily wondering why we continue to get our name out in the market if we are finding enough students to fill our community. First, if you will examine our billboards and marketing efforts locally, you will find that almost all of that “marketing” is aimed at graduate programs. Keep in mind that we have a large graduate system that includes 16 masters and doctoral degrees. In order to fill those classrooms our name has to be out there as an excellent provider of graduate education. We do not advertize in traditional forms like billboards for our undergraduate majors and programs.
Tasked with a message
Since its inception, Christianity has been calling people to repentance and faith. It has not been exclusive but inclusive; all are welcome under the blood of Jesus. Thus, we are tasked with carrying the message of Jesus to others. I have always thought that a church that is not “growing” in a real sense is actually preparing for its death. When you suggest that a growing university is not about building the Kingdom of God I suppose I would have to dissent from that view, depending on how one means it.
Ultimately, if we were only a school of 550 like we were in 1986, we would be impacting far fewer lives and few would know who we are. The students who come to George Fox now are the beneficiaries of the work of the past 25 years and lots of growth – growth in numbers, growth in quality, growth in mission. The impact and footprint of George Fox is much greater today than it ever has been, and it will be greater tomorrow. Thus, in my mind, growth is very much a part of a Kingdom vision – it is inclusive, embracing and personal.