Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is expanding its reach by embracing online education, The Virginian-Pilot reports. From a small university catering to a very specific audience when it was founded by tele-evangelist Jerry Falwell in 1971, the school has leveraged technology to spread its influence all over the globe.
Today, over 74,000 are enrolled at Liberty working towards a degree,with a full 62,000 of them taking advantage of one of the school's online programs. Among fully-online majors offered at Liberty are business, education, criminal justice and a number focusing on the university's main attraction – religion.
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.
The conservative institution is not a place one would think to look for pioneering educational approach, yet Liberty was one of the first schools in the world to realize the importance of online education to future growth. It started offering online-only programs many years before more traditional universities in both the United States and abroad. However, according to Pilot's Nick Anderson, questions remain if the quality of the education offered have kept pace with the student numbers.
Turbo-charged 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. 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.
For a long time, Liberty University inevitably called to mind the polarizing politics of its founder. Falwell, who held views well to the right of the American mainstream, repelled a large portion of the potential student pool. However, according to his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr. – who now heads the school – Liberty has turned the corner since his father's death in 2007. It is slowly changing its reputation, striving to join other religiously-affiliated-yet-mainstream colleges like Georgetown and Notre Dame.
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.