Jerry Falwell Jr., president and chancellor of Liberty University, introduces… (Norm Shafer/The Washington…)
LYNCHBURG, Va. — The small Baptist college that television preacher Jerry Falwell founded here in 1971 has capitalized on the online education boom to become an evangelical mega-university with global reach.
In the almost six years since Falwell’s death, Liberty University has doubled its student head count — twice.
Total enrollment now exceeds 74,000, with nearly 62,000 working toward degrees online in fields such as psychology, business, education, criminal justice and, of course, religion. That makes Liberty the largest university in Virginia — with more than double the number of students at No. 2 George Mason — and the largest private, nonprofit university in the country. With a slogan of “training champions for Christ,” Liberty also is the nation’s largest university with a religious affiliation.
The surging enrollment for a bastion of Christian conservatism in the central Virginia foothills highlights the school as a market leader at the crossroads of religion and higher education. Liberty figured out how to recruit masses of students via the Internet years before elite universities began ballyhooed experiments with free online courses.
Turbocharged growth inevitably raises questions about quality, and Liberty’s academic reputation has not risen as fast as its enrollment. About 47 percent of its first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, federal data show, below the national average of 58 percent. Liberty officials say such statistics reflect an admissions policy geared more toward opportunity than exclusivity.
“We believe that Liberty will redefine what is considered an academically prestigious university in the future,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the university’s chancellor and president. The school, he said, aims to be judged by how many students it educates and how well it educates them rather than how many it turns away.
Liberty’s expansion has yielded a river of money. The university ended 2012 with more than $1 billion in net assets for the first time, counting cash, property, investments and other holdings. That is 10 times what the school had in 2006, putting Liberty in the same financial league as universities such as Pepperdine, Georgetown and Tulane.
Flush with cash, Liberty is building a huge, $50 million library, replacing old dormitories and angling to place its Flames football team in a conference eligible for NCAA bowl games.
“It’s grown from being a small Bible school towards the goal of being a full-service university,” Falwell said in an interview. He said he aims to carry out his father’s vision: “To create for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons.”
Falwell, 50, acknowledged that Liberty’s image continues to be influenced by the legacy of his late father’s political activism. The elder Falwell, who died in May 2007, was a polarizing figure — beloved on the right, despised on the left.
But his son said Liberty has turned a page.
“We’re not the Moral Majority anymore,” Falwell said, referring to the religious conservative movement his father founded. “We’re not a church. Our mission is to educate.”
Liberty weaves biblical teachings into its courses, but faculty are committed to rigorous instruction in disciplines ranging from aeronautics to engineering to law. The university is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which also oversees accreditation of the University of Virginia.
But in academic stature, Liberty trails many schools with religious ties. U.S. News & World Report ranks Notre Dame among the top 20 national universities and Brigham Young University among the top 70. Among schools with Christian affiliations and national cachet are Pepperdine, Baylor and Texas Christian universities and Wheaton College of Illinois.
U.S. News calls Liberty a regional university — a lower-profile designation — and ranks it 65th in a grouping of Southern schools.
In his influential guide to about 300 prominent colleges, analyst Edward B. Fiske says Wheaton is “at the top of the heap in evangelical education.” Liberty isn’t in the book.
“The question is whether Liberty’s online operation is going to bring it academic respectability,” Fiske said in an interview. “I don’t know. There’s really not a precedent for this. . . . Academic reputations take a long time to build.”
Liberty is well known as a stage for politicians seeking to reach an evangelical Christian audience. Mitt Romney delivered the 2012 Liberty commencement speech soon after sewing up the Republican presidential nomination, and he carried the campus precinct in the November election with 93 percent of the vote.