At a time when many institutions of higher education, public and private, are facing enrollment difficulties, Evangel University is growing.
The Springfield-based campus experienced an increase in undergraduate enrollment this fall — 16 percent — due to an increase in freshmen and transfer students.
“It’s exciting growth. A rising tide lifts all boats, and I think that’s what’s happening,” said Mike Rakes, entering his second year as Evangel president. “In any field, there is only growth.”
Rakes, a longtime pastor with experience in higher education, took the job a year ago and laid out a plan for growth. It started with catering to students who were already on campus, or learning remotely.
“We said we wanted to elevate the student experience, and so all of our teams — every team in the university — focused on doing just that,” he said.
There were minor changes, such as improved customer service or waiting times. Others were large, such as building the Valor basketball courts, adding campus amenities, and erecting residence halls and a cafeteria.
“Every residence hall has new carpet and the lobbies have 75-inch TVs…so the kids are riding high right now. They’re excited, but that was the strategy,” Rakes said. “If we can elevate the fun and joy they have outside of the classroom, we thought that would increase retention, which it did.”
Evangel added new club sports and service learning options with community partners like Convoy of Hope.
Last year, the university’s total enrollment was 2,129, including traditional undergraduate, graduate, online and seminary students.
Rakes said overall enrollment is up roughly 10 percent overall this fall and 16 percent for new students.
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“We’ve had a huge increase in transfer students,” Rakes said. “Clarifying our story and the great story that is Evangel has helped keep us in the market where students are thinking about where they will end their college careers.”
He said non-traditional students in online and graduate programs are growing. The university is also seeing an increase in seminary with enrollment going 60 percent ahead of last year’s enrollment.
Evangel continues to draw most of its students from the Midwest, but draws from across the U.S. This year, 11 countries are represented in the student population.
The official number of registrations will be made at the beginning of September.
Asked why Evangel is stemming the decline in national enrollment, Rakes said “education alone is not enough” and many students in this generation are looking for community, family, virtue and character development.
“With Evangel, it’s not just about taking classes and going to get a job,” Rakes said. “It’s about transforming their heart into that place of adulthood, of responsibility.”
He said higher education should prepare students for how workplaces will change.
In the past year, Rakes has renewed the leadership of the university. He said he plans “100 days at a time” and looks for progress.
He created “task” teams to address challenges and improve the campus, including what he calls a “problem-solving ninja team” that steps in when “a student has a problem or something falls through the cracks” and has to to be addressed quickly.
Morale is at an all-time high.
Employees received a 3 percent raise last year, which will be repeated this school year. Full-time employees also received a Christmas bonus.
Rakes said his predecessor Carol Taylor, who retired at the end of 2020, created a “runway” for many of the changes his administration has been able to make.
Under Taylor’s leadership, Evangel consolidated with Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and absorbed Central Bible College, which no longer exists. Scholarship offerings were renewed and the university improved graduate outreach.
Evangel has been on the federal “watch list” of institutions of higher education with shaky financial stability since the mid-2010s. Rakes said the university is on track to exit, which requires progress over time.
“We ended up in the black last year, and our score will be well behind what is required by the (U.S. Department of Education) when you do the math,” he said. “Then, this increase in registrations puts Evangel in a new place.
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Rakes said Evangel is experiencing “pretty dramatic” growth in fundraising, both overall and in its capital campaign.
“I didn’t necessarily see myself as a great fundraiser, but I’m a great storyteller,” he said, adding that he says he needs “higher Christ-centered education.”
Rakes said there were 528 new first-time donors to Evangel last year.
“I am really proud of this number. “It means people who haven’t given to Evnagel before have stepped in to help us. So that’s exciting.”
The university is also in the silent phase of a $22 million capital campaign that includes an outdoor sports and performance environment.
Rakes said about 55 percent of that amount has been raised and pledges are still coming.
“We’re moving forward,” he said. “We will break ground very soon.”
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to [email protected].