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“Our Troubles Are upon Us”: Declining Enrollments at Adventist Colleges and Universities in North America Suggest Need for New Approach


While graduate student enrollment at the 13 Adventist colleges and universities in North America has grown by 1.2% over the last seven years, undergraduate headcounts have declined by 3.4% over the same period (2012-2019), according to a November 5, 2019, press release from the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities (AACU). The consolidated 2019 fall enrollment for AACU institutions totals 22,971 students.

“These numbers are better than most nationally reported trends among comparable private colleges and universities,” states Vinita Sauder, President of Union College and current AACU president. “Nevertheless, we take this trend seriously, and are actively exploring strategies to slow and perhaps reverse it.”

“Conservative estimates say that hundreds of institutions are in peril, and discouraging enrollment figures are likely to only get worse,” according to a September 27, 2019, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The declining enrollments across the nation, especially in small, rural private colleges and universities, remind us once again that Adventists are affected by the same maladies that ail others; in this case, slipping, even plummeting enrollments, due to multiple factors. The AACU institutions are down 17% in overall enrollment since 2012. Three institutions are down only a modest 4% (AU, LLU, and WWU), while four are above 20% (AHU, OU, PUC, and WAU). No doubt each of these institutions has a different story to tell as they deal with these discouraging trends.

Things are tough all over. An October issue of The Chronicle Review is titled, “The Great Enrollment Crash” and concludes that “higher education has fully entered a new structural reality…. Things are only going to get worse.” 

These numbers support the powerful “Case Statement: The Future of Adventist Higher Education,” dated October 31, 2019, and presented by Gordon Bietz, retired SAU president and NAD associate director of Education, at the North American Division Year-end Meetings. “Our troubles…are upon us,” Bietz told the delegates, summarizing the actions being taken based on the 2018 Chicago Adventist Higher Education Summit, and requesting (and getting) approval for a “An Innovation Journey—Timeline Toward Consensus on Collaboration and the Strengthening of SDA Higher Education.”    

The “Case Statement” (available here) identifies the causes of enrollment declines: “dramatic demographic changes, increasing cost, multiple options for acquiring content and skill expertise, and intensifying questions about proof of investment and readiness for careers.”

The members of the Taskforce formed after the Chicago Summit make an eloquent case for action:

“This is not about the survival of one or two of our 13 schools. This is about creating a      form of Adventist Higher Education that leads the way in North America in providing the highest quality, affordable educational preparation for a life of service and a productive career. It is the conviction of leadership that the strength of the church in North America will be as strong as its educational system…. We either fund the future or prop up a soon to be obsolete past.” (Italics supplied.)

Each AACU institution is working hard to innovate and improve. “AACU presidents face an ongoing challenge to build brand awareness of the quality, values, and variety of our campuses and to find creative ways to make them more affordable,” says Bietz. The “Innovation Journey” that is planned for the coming year will be “an appeal to students, families, church leadership, and other key stakeholders to join us in this important conversation.”

Enrollment trends for NAD higher education schools, 2012-2019. Chart presented by Dr. Gordon Bietz at the 2019 NAD Year-end Meetings. Image credit: Screen capture from NAD live-stream.

Enrollment trends breakdown for each higher education school, 2012-2019. Chart presented by Dr. Leslie Pollard, Oakwood University president, at the 2019 NAD Year-end Meetings. Image credit: Screen capture from NAD live-stream.


Nancy Hoyt Lecourt is Professor of English and Academic Dean Emerita at Pacific Union College. She is retired and living in Angwin, California.

Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash


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