Meredith Thornton, senior psychology major from Cedar Hill, highly considered attending Pepperdine Christian University. As a Church of Christ student, she even received a scholarship to attend the school. With this scholarship and other forms of financial aid, her first year at Pepperdine was completely paid for.
However, somehow she ended up at Abilene Christian University, a Church of Christ school that offered no scholarships for students who attended a Church of Christ.
A tour to Pepperdine made Thornton realize that they weren’t offering the same experiences that ACU was, she said. A tour guide’s reaction to Chapel helped clear this up for Thornton.
“Every time she mentioned Chapel, it was like she was apologizing for it, and that really bugged me because I felt like chapel was a big part of the Christian experience,” Thornton said. “I wanted that connection to everyone.”
Thornton said ACU never apologized for Chapel or any of it’s Christian traditions and that is why she chose ACU.
Thornton is just one of many other Church of Christ students that must choose between receiving larger scholarships at another Christian university or attending ACU.
The percentage of Church of Christ students attending ACU has dropped steadily over the past five years and one factor could be money. ACU does not consider Church of Christ membership when awarding scholarships, while some other Christian schools do. Another factor in this decline might be that a Church of Christ affiliation is not a priority for recruiters like it was in the past. And despite dropping numbers, university leaders said this is not a concern.
In 2009, 54.6 percent of students claimed Church of Christ membership. By this fall, that number had fallen to 41.9 percent.
One factor in the lowering numbers at ACU might be that Pepperdine, Harding and Lipscomb offer Church of Christ-based scholarships.
According to the Pepperdine University admissions website, Church of Christ students are encouraged to apply for two scholarships based on their religious affiliation.
The site even offers a definition of what a Church of Christ is: “Churches of Christ are autonomous, non-denominational congregations associated by common core beliefs as recorded in the New Testament rather than united by a governing body, president, or creed.”
Students can apply for the Church of Christ scholarship by submitting a letter of reference from a church leader.
The Associated Women for Pepperdine offers a scholarship that grants $5000 a year to Church of Christ students who submit an essay on their spiritual life. Students are asked to include their baptism experience, service at their congregation and how they will use their faith at Pepperdine.
Harding University and Lipscomb offer the church match scholarship only for Church of Christ congregations. ACU offers a similar match scholarship, however it does not specify that the church needs to be Church of Christ.
Glenn Dillard, assistant vice president of enrollment at Harding University, said the number of students claiming a Church of Christ affiliation at their university is 80 percent.
Dillard said the number of Church of Christ students attending the school could be due to the university’s low tuition.
“Our price has been a great value for a number of years and comparing our cost to most Christian universities, we are a bargain,” he said.
Stewart McGregor, senior Christian ministry and political science major from Arlington, is another student who was offered larger scholarships at another university, but chose ACU.
He said he had set his mind on attending Harding University because he could get more scholarships there.
“I had kind of fallen in love with Harding because everything was in line and it was so easy,” he said.
McGregor said he applied for a Harding scholarship reserved for Bible majors who attend Churches of Christ and are willing to work as a minister at a Church of Christ after they graduate. Although he didn’t receive the scholarship, McGregor said Harding increased its offer because he had applied for it.
Two weeks before he left for Arkansas, McGregor said his plans changed completely after he received a Lynay scholarship, which is unrelated to church membership.
“I am so thankful I came to ACU,” McGregor said. “I’ve gotten to do a whole lot of things I wouldn’t have gotten to do at Harding.”
Another factor in the decline could be reduced emphasis in recruiting.
University recruiters are not required to attend a Church of Christ, a requirement that was dropped a decade years ago. However, chief enrollment officer Kevin Campbell did say eight of the university’s 10 recruiters attend Churches of Christ, and the admissions, recruiting, marketing and analytics directors do as well.
Campbell said that although other colleges may offer different scholarships, ACU has not drawn back on its strategies to bring in Church of Christ students.
“Church of Christ students are our heritage,” he said. “We think it’s very important to the DNA of ACU, and we are still trying to attract them as best we can.”
The university still focuses much of its recruiting efforts on Church of Christ students, including visiting Churches of Christ and Christian high schools.
However, Campbell said he does not see ACU offering Church of Christ scholarships in the future.
“What we hope is that we can maintain our Church of Christ basis that we have right now and kind of continue going in that regard,” Campbell said.
He said the reason for this is because the university attracts students who may not be Church of Christ but would thrive in the community environment ACU provides.
“They’re disciples of Christ and they didn’t grow up attending a Church of Christ,” he said. “So what we don’t want to do is disproportionately pull money away from somebody based on an affiliation that may have nothing to do if they are a disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Tamara Long, director of admissions, said the university is not concerned about the decrease in Church of Christ students, but rather open to diversity on campus.
“I think there’s a lot of conversation going on around campus about how ACU maintains its heritage and our roots and who we are without being dishonoring of the different faith backgrounds that are coming to our campus,” Long said.
Long said she thinks religious affiliation may no longer be the biggest factor in admitting students to ACU like it was in the past.
“What’s most important is that we’re attracting students that believe in Jesus and believe in a life that is greater than themselves through service to God,” Long said. “If we’re doing that, I don’t think really we’re all that concerned with a piece of paper where they check what church they grew up in.”
In the end, Thornton said her parents approved of her choice to attend ACU.
“I can guarantee you, even if Pepperdine was going to be free, they would probably still say they were happier I went here,” she said.
Thornton said looking back at her time in Abilene, she knows she made the right decision, too.
“I don’t think I would have found the community and the support there, that I have here,” she said.