The Disappearing Middle Class in Christian Higher Education, Part 1

According to ABHE’s 2015 statistical report,1 out of roughly 140 universities and colleges who have any official reported status with ABHE, there are only 5 non-denominational Bible colleges with attendance over 3202 students (including undergraduate and graduate studies): Columbia Bible College (407), College of Biblical Studies (423), Grace Bible College (883), Lancaster Bible College (1892), and Moody Bible Institute (3907).

According to ABHE’s 2011 statistical report,3 out of roughly 135 universities and colleges who have any official reported status with ABHE, there were 8 non-denominational Bible colleges with attendance over 320 students: Grace Bible College (324), Master’s College and Seminary (340), God’s Bible School and College (353), Columbia Bible College (493), College of Biblical Studies (493), Washington Bible College and Capital Bible Seminary (501), Lancaster Bible College (1189), and Moody Bible Institute (3501).

Of those 8, 3 saw significant growth since the 2011 report, 1 closed (Washington Bible College and Capital Seminary), and 4 have seen significant enrollment decreases since the 2011 report (Master’s College and Seminary from 340 to 235, God’s Bible School and College from 353 to 278, Columbia Bible College from 493 to 407, and College of Biblical Studies decreased from 493 to 423).

Of the 3 that grew their enrollment, Grace Bible College saw a remarkable increase from 324 to 883, in part through academic program expansion beyond traditional ministry programs, including teacher education, business, exercise science, history human services, and criminal justice. Lancaster Bible College saw growth from 1189 students to 1892, with program expansion and some influx of students from the folding of Washington Bible College and the merger with Capital Bible Seminary in 2013.4 Moody Bible Institute grew from 3501 to 3907, with steady growth in multiple categories, along with successfully leveraging a merger with Michigan Theological Seminary (now Moody Theological Seminary, Michigan) in 2010.

Specific Market Pressures Facing Bible Colleges

In short, only the very strongest in this sector have seen significant growth, and those have been driven largely by deliberate expansions well beyond the scope of the traditional Bible college, or by market opportunities of merger and acquisition. The non-denominational Bible college sector is disappearing, as leading schools in the sector are moving beyond traditional models, and those that insist on staying within the bubble are seeing either dramatic and continual decreases in enrollment or even closure. Moody’s Investor Services predicts even tougher times ahead, suggesting that the number of college closures will triple in 2017. Their report adds some important narrative: “Enrollment declines and lost market share for smaller colleges continue to spur closures and mergers, as students increasingly opt for larger colleges with greater academic resources.”5

The problem largely manifests in schools’ inability to reinvest in infrastructure for future growth: “…most small colleges will fail to achieve sustained revenue growth above 2% per year, which puts them at a disadvantage in a highly competitive higher education environment. Furthermore, small colleges will continue to lose market share to larger ones, hurting their ability to invest in academic programs, student life and facilities. Inefficient cost structures are also hampering the ability of small colleges to invest in their programs and facilities. By relying on falling tuition revenue to fund the majority of their rising fixed costs, small colleges without endowment or gift revenue will be increasingly challenged to properly fund ongoing operations.”6

Moody’s assessment underscores 6 major concerns:

  • Students choosing larger colleges for their greater resources,
  • Lack of sustained revenue growth above 2%,
  • Trend toward smaller colleges losing market share to larger ones,
  • Failing to reinvest for future growth,
  • Inefficient cost structures,
  • Reliance on tuition revenue.

While these six concerns play a huge role directly in the overall decline in Bible-college health, there are two other factors that are equally prominent in creating an increasingly unwelcoming environment for higher Christian education: declining church attendance and funding, and disproportionate cost of college preparation versus expected wages for full-time ministry.

Declining Church Attendance & Funding Means Declining Full-Time Ministry Opportunities

Each year 4000 churches close, compared to 1000 new churches planted in the United States. In 1995, 20.5% of Americans attended church 2 or more times per month, compared to 19% in 1999 and 18% in 2002. If the trend continues, frequent attenders will decrease to 15% in 2025 and 12% in 2050.7 The typical Protestant church in 2003 had 89 members.8 In 2011, half of churches in America have less than 75 people.9 Even larger churches are seeing declines in some areas. The median percentage of weekly worship attendees to total participants in megachurches (which account for 10% of all Protestant church attenders10) has decreased 14% from 2005 to 2015.11 The percentage of young adults who make up these larger churches has also decreased slightly from 2010 to 2015: ages 18-34 has decreased 1%, and ages 35-49 has decreased 5%.12

Church giving has also decreased from 2.4% of a total church member’s income in 2010 to 2.3% in 2011,13 along with a per capita decrease in the United States and Canada of 2.2%. in 2012.14 In 2013, Americans increased their giving to charities by 3%, while church giving decreased by another .2%.15 The increase in charitable giving accompanied by continued decline in church giving suggests that economic resurgence might not restore church giving even to previous levels, as givers have changed their habits and changed their causes.

These numbers show that overall, churches are trending smaller and fewer, and even the largest churches are relatively flat in significant growth-indicator areas. One consequence is that funding levels for church growth have not kept pace with inflation, resulting in staff reductions in new church development efforts.16 While these numbers underscore the importance of church planting, church revitalization, and international missions, they also paint a clear picture that full-time vocational opportunities in the church are becoming more rare.

The Cost of Preparation Outpaces Expected Wages in Full-time Ministry Vocations

Recent median earnings of college graduates age 25-32 were $45,500, while for those who had only a high school diploma the same measure of earnings was $28,000.17 While college still pays off, area of major plays a significant role. Financially this is not good news for those pursuing full-time ministry. For example, the average salary for a pastor in the United States is $28,000.18 Further, as the cost of college increases, the average salaries of pastors are not keeping up. Lifeway Research reports, for example, that SBC pastors see an average increase in salary of 1% per year, roughly 2.9% below annual inflation for that same period of measure.19 Obviously, most don’t pursue pastoral roles for the financial rewards, but still, these numbers show that not only is it very difficult for the average pastor to provide financially for their family, but also that the cost of college preparation simply does not return a financial payoff for those pursuing pastoral ministry, unlike in most other vocations. Even teachers, who see the second lowest financial payoff for their college efforts at an average salary of $42,000, still significantly outpace pastors by 50%.

The Insulated Sector

While unaccredited Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries face similar pressures to those encountered by their accredited counterparts, they are remarkably well insulated, in large part due to far lower overhead costs. Because of the narrower curricular focus (fewer degrees offered), facility demands are typically not nearly as high and faculty demands are greatly reduced. Facilities costs will typically demand 20-30% of a healthy accredited institution’s annual revenue, and faculty will account for another 30-40%. In these two categories alone, the demands of accreditation greatly inflate the cost of education. The expense of accreditation itself adds another $32,000-41,000 per year on average.20 Annual costs for operating a credible unaccredited institution can be less than half of those for an accredited school.

For a school with a narrow mission focus in Bible and ministry, that is preparing people for vocation and service in shrinking and dollar-starved employment sectors, being part of an economic lower class may mean the difference between closure and survival for an institution. Further, lessening the financial burden of operation may provide the best environment to focus on the mission of the institution. For example, Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute (Hurst, Texas) offers eleven degree programs in five curriculum areas (Bible and theology, Christian education, ministry, messianic studies, and Biblical languages).21 Frontier School of the Bible (LaGrange, Wyoming) offers only one undergraduate degree program in one curricular area (Bible).22 Cornerstone Bible Institute (Hot Springs, South Dakota) offers a three-year program in Bible and ministry areas.23

While each of the three of these unaccredited schools have good reputations and a high degree of competence in their areas, their cost of attendance is a fraction of the average accredited cost. Frontier’s cost per semester is roughly $3,125 per semester including tuition, books, and room and board.24 Cornerstone’s cost is roughly $2,600 per semester including tuition, books, and room and board.25 Tyndale’s cost varies from $180 (undergraduate) to $300 (graduate) per course, for a full time per-semester cost of $1,146 (undergraduate) to $1,326 (graduate), including tuition and fees.26 Compared to a typical $7,000-8,000 per-semester cost for a private accredited education, the financial disparity is significant.

Of course there are concerns for the unaccredited sector. There is a general perception that unaccredited necessarily means diploma mill. Accreditation typically demands a high degree of peer review in order to maintain a reasonable degree of quality control. But in the cases of the three unaccredited schools mentioned above, there is a higher-education industry standard degree of academic rigor and transparency that separates these schools – and others like them – from diploma mills. Unaccredited does not necessarily mean a lower degree of quality, though unaccredited allows an institution with low integrity to offer a subpar product presented as something other than that. Still, recent controversies especially involving accredited for-profit schools underscore the reality that accredited schools are not immune to quality and transparency issues either. Accreditation is not the ultimate determiner of the quality of an institution, so this sector cannot be dismissed without a much closer case by case examination of the institutions being considered.

Another challenge faced by unaccredited schools is the ongoing and often unmet need for advancement and development efforts. These efforts are typically limited by minimalist infrastructure and a focus on student recruiting. Successful donor recruiting often requires a level of operational commitment that exceeds the narrow (missional) focus of these institutions. While overall costs of operation are lower, overall investment in marketing and advancement is also lower, and inhibits growth. Still, greater investment in growth and development typically leads to greater cost of operation which is generally passed on to the student. If costs rise disproportionately (in relation to accredited education), this sector begins to lose its appeal. This is the very delicate balance these schools are attempting to manage.

The economically lower class sector of unaccredited Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries show some potential for sustainability and a greater degree of market stability than its accredited counterpart, but not just due to internal and market factors. Government regulation, especially related to gender politics, creates a significant external financial pressure. One of the major reasons schools pursue accreditation is to capitalize on federally guaranteed financial aid. With that financial guarantee comes regulations, and in the current climate, those regulations are often unsympathetic to the doctrine and mission of Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries. Accredited schools are acutely less insulated than their unaccredited counterparts, largely because more than half of accredited schools’ tuition revenue is from federally guaranteed funding. This external market threat is one much more readily engaged by the unaccredited Bible college sector, as their finances do not depend on government funds. Further, when government regulation impacts the doctrine and mission of accredited schools, the unaccredited ones are often able to withstand the pressure and maintain their stance, as they are positioned in such a way as not to be as significantly impacted financially. This factor alone is a significant indicator of a potentially strong future for the unaccredited Bible college sector.

(Coming in Part 2: Three Categories of Christian Higher Education Institutions and A Case Study of University Change.)



2 The number 350 is an important benchmark, as it indicates a school has infrastructure to move from the smallest category to a next-level institution. It is significant how few schools have even reached the 320 mark.




6 Ibid.

7 Richard Krejcir, “Statistics and Reasons for Church Decline,” viewed at….

8 Barna Group, “Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because of the People They Attract,” viewed at….

9 Scott Lencke, “The Average Church Size in America,” viewed at

10 Samuel Smith, “Megachurches Seeing Drop in Weekly Attendance,” Dec. 3, 2015, The Christian Post, viewed at….

11 Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, from The Hartford Institute, “Recent Shifts in America’s Largest Protestant Churches: Megachurches 2015 Report,” page 7, viewed at

12 Ibid, 9.

13 Katherine Burgess, “Report: Church Giving reaches Depression-era record lows” October 24, 2013, in Religion News Service, viewed at….

14 Annalisa Musarra (Religion News Service), “Report: Church Giving Dropped $1.2 Billion in 2010 Recession, March 23, 2012, Christianity Today, viewed at….

15 Michael Gryboski, “Americans Are Giving More to Charity, Less to the Church, Says Report,” June 18, 2014, The Christian Post, viewed at….

16 Kirk Hadaway and David Roozen, “Denominational Growth and Decline, Part One,” in Church and Denominational Growth, page 45, viewed at

17 Andrea Caumont, “Six key findings about going to college,” Pew Research, viewed at….

18 Christian Media Magazine, “A Look at Pastors’ Salaries in the United States”, viewed at

19 Lifeway Research, “SBC Pastor Salaries Not Keeping Up With Inflation,” viewed at….

20 Wheelan and Elgart, “Accreditation’s Real Cost and Value,” Inside Higher Ed, October 22, 2015, at….






26 Tyndale is not a residency school, having opted not to provide room and board, thus further decreasing operation expenses.

Christopher Cone 2016

Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

This is an interesting analysis.

Back when I was looking at Bible Institutes/colleges, I looked for accreditation by the  American Association of Bible Colleges (I think it was called).  Back then, we did not worry about secular accreditation; good churches recognized good schools.  Is that organization still around?

Since -- according to what I read somewhere -- only 5% of men who begin as pastors retire as pastors, it makes a whole lot more sense for men either (1) to get a degree in a secular field and then go to seminary, or (2) go to a Bible institute and then into ministry (the choice I made, sort of.  I have an outdated associates in EET, was pursuing it when I sensed the call, so I completed it and never used it).  Moody is much more affordable, BTW, than most accredited Bible colleges.

 Not everyone sees it this way.

Here in Indiana, we have a epidemic: churches hire pastors with no formal theological training at all.  Seems like a bi-polar approach:  with education, more is always better or it doesn't matter at all.  What was so wonderful about the Bible Institute movement was its practicality and ability to produce competent pastors at the same time. Schooling didn't cost as much, the time commitment was less, and students are not left with a bid debt to pay off from a meager salary.

I would dispute the 28 K statistic. Both length of tenure and salary can be deceptive if you take into account all the variables. For example, it you factor in what teacher's aides makes with teachers, that brings down the statistic a whole lot.  This is what is done to get that 28K stat. The 28K stat includes youth pastors, pastors who supplement their income by working part time, etc.. The average wage for pastors is 47K, according to

Consider many pastors have not only Bachelor level degrees, but advance degrees (an M.Div is usually 3 years after a B.A.), the salary is not commensurate.


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