Seventh-day Adventist higher education is facing many challenges in the United States: lack of affordability; mounting student debt; emerging college alternatives. These are just some of the unprecedented difficulties colleges and universities nationwide — not just Adventist ones — have been grappling with in the past few years.
“Then the pandemic hit,” Tony Yang, vice president for strategy, marketing, and enrollment and chief communication officer at Andrews University, says.
But leaders at Adventist colleges and universities are working to change that, setting aside their competitive differences to further the mission of Seventh-day Adventist education.
The Adventist Enrollment Association (AEA), a group of enrollment administration officers and representatives from all 13 Adventist colleges and universities in North America, was created to brand and position institutions together, create awareness and visibility of college options, and expand access to Adventist young people.
Yang, who is also the president of AEA, says he sees hope for the future of Adventist higher education because of its shared mission. “Now, perhaps more than ever, we have an opportunity to share the love of Jesus with a world that’s facing increasingly challenging times.”
Recently, in late January, the AEA met at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, to discuss joint marketing and enrollment efforts and share best practices. Each institution has a voice and a vote.
“Meeting in person humanizes the competitiveness,” Marc Grundy, vice president of marketing for the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities (AACU), says. “It makes us all realize we’re doing this for the same reason — to bring students to a closer walk with the Lord.”
In the 1990s, as the booming college enrollment of the 1970s and 1980s began to wane, administrators and enrollment representatives from Adventist colleges began to meet more regularly to address enrollment competition and discuss how to support Adventist higher education.
Gene Edelbach, now Pacific Union College’s vice president for enrollment, marketing, and communication, says in the late nineties, a more structured group began meeting yearly. General marketing efforts for the larger concept of Adventist education gained support. By 2000, the AEA had been officially established.
Grundy says research showed that families with students who didn’t attend Adventist schools knew very little about what Adventist colleges and universities had to offer.
Cooperating accomplishes more than working individually, Grundy says. “Competition can certainly be healthy, but collaboration can save us money and raise our overall awareness throughout the North American Division.”
Sharing More About Adventist Schools
Another dilemma for enrollment executives and representatives is that even for students attending Adventist K-12 schools and academies, continuing to an Adventist college or university is not a given.
“Far less than 20 percent of all Adventist students in the U.S. attend Adventist higher ed institutions,” Edelbach says. “As a team, we are working to find and enroll as many of that remaining 80 percent as possible.”
The AEA created Adventist Colleges and Universities, a joint website, where prospective students and families can explore the 13 Adventist colleges and universities in North America and their programs as they plan for the future.
Information about admissions, scholarships, financial aid, and scheduling campus visits is also centralized on the site.
Edelbach, even before the AEA’s formation, established and operated the current college fair system, where every Adventist college is invited to each Adventist academy once a year.
Once the organization drew up its constitution, it “allowed for controlled but recognized access” for each college to go throughout North America and promote and recruit outside their designated territory, Edelbach says.
The NAD College Fair Event Schedule is also on the joint website. It lists the college fair regions, schools, and dates when enrollment counselors from each institution will collectively visit, answer questions, and provide more information.
Throughout the year, the AEA produces and sends out joint print materials, emails, and posts on social media platforms to inform parents and students about events on Adventist campuses.
The AEA members meet in person twice yearly, on a rotating host basis, at the different colleges and universities. In May of each year, there is a General Meeting. In January, an Executive Committee Meeting draws each institution’s chief enrollment officers, vice presidents, and directors.
Recent successes include a 10-percent increase in enrollment directly tied to the AEA’s joint marketing efforts, says Grundy, a former vice president of enrollment services at Southern Adventist University.
The AACU shares the same goals and exists to improve higher education and help make the benefits known to students seeking a degree at a faith-based institution, Grundy adds.
The AACU comprises the 13 NAD Adventist college and university presidents. Gordon Bietz, the retired long-time president of Southern Adventist University, serves as AACU’s director. Bietz says he sees tremendous value in working together.
“The higher education business model is under a great deal of pressure, financial and reputational, in society at large,” he says.
In addition, small- and mid-sized institutions lack the economies of scale to find innovative ways to confront these new higher education realities, Bietz says. “Adventist colleges and universities need to work together in multiple ways to be leaders in this new educational world.”
Ultimately, Bietz says, he hopes the collaborative efforts continue to “strengthen to the place where we would be seen as a comprehensive higher education system that is recognized nationally for its academic quality as well as its Christian focus.”
“I would hope that students who obtain an education at one of our institutions would be thoughtful citizens who know how to be in the world but not of the world,” Bietz says.
Yang agrees. “While we also want our students to graduate and get a job, we have the opportunity to be part of a much bigger purpose. Our individual stories are part of God’s bigger love story,” he says. “The global reach isn't just the work of pastors and missionaries. With a Jesus-centered Adventist education, every single person — no matter his or her job — can be part of the special end-time work that God has called Seventh-day Adventists to do.”