Described by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton as “gems of this church,” the ELCA’s 26 colleges and universities have deep roots in the Christian tradition. These schools, with combined enrollment of around 50,000 students, are committed to academic excellence, living out Martin Luther’s insistence that a godly mind is as important as a faithful heart. Yet ELCA schools have witnessed dramatic changes in recent decades that are reflected in student body demographics, campus leadership, curricula, pedagogy, technology, facilities and partnerships.

Expanding & diversifying

A half dozen of the ELCA schools known as colleges became universities as they expanded to offer advanced degrees in specialized areas. For example, California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks now boasts a School of Management and graduate schools of education and psychology. Much of its enrollment growth is attributed to these schools offering specialized advanced degrees.

Founded by European Lutheran immigrants, most of today’s colleges and universities were racially homogeneous in their early years, but over the past several decades, student and faculty profiles indicate greater diversity. A high percentage of undergraduates at Cal Lutheran and at Texas Lutheran University, Seguin, are of Latino heritage. More than a third of the students at Newberry (S.C.) College are African American.

Wagner College in New York and Augsburg University in Minneapolis also have expansive multicultural communities, with people of color constituting 40% or more of the student body.

Mark Wilhelm, program director for the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities, believes all of the ELCA’s schools have made progress in this area and now have senior administrators dedicated to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

Faculty and administrative profiles are also more diverse, with more women professors and senior administrators. Most schools also have dropped the expectation that presidents and other key leaders be prominent Lutheran figures. Though still expecting such leaders to honor the schools’ faith-based heritage and mission, many boards now prioritize demonstrated competence in academic leadership. In the past many were promoted from the faculty or from other positions, but today’s presidents, provosts and other senior leaders often come from other higher education institutions where they have proved their effectiveness.

While selecting leaders from outside Lutheran circles runs the risk of diminishing a school’s identity, it can signal the institution’s commitment to serving all God’s people. Religion department faculty also reflect the expansive diversity of the U.S. religious scene, and chaplains are challenged to offer spiritual care to multifaith communities.

In the classroom

On the education side, classrooms now accommodate the latest learning technology, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a trend toward remote learning. Professors have become adept at online teaching, and many students have found that they can learn effectively at home. A full return to pre-pandemic work and pedagogy seems unlikely.

Beyond how students study, what they study is much richer than in the past. Historical, cultural and business studies now embrace global perspectives. Courses and staff-training workshops explore the continuing reality of racism and other forms of oppression.

“Being a college of the ELCA lays a claim on us to responsibly engage the world in which we live.”

Religious studies address the wisdom of many of the world’s traditions in addition to Christianity. Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan., is among a small number of U.S. colleges to offer a minor in interfaith studies, and all religion departments in ELCA schools now teach a broad array of courses in the world’s major religions.

William Craft, president of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., said the school has made “a conscious commitment to interreligious dialogue and service,” adding that its curriculum explores other faiths “not in spite of our Lutheran identity but because of it.”

New partners

Today schools recognize that they need to partner with others in order to offer students more career opportunities. To that end, ELCA colleges and universities partner with businesses, governmental agencies and other higher education institutions, including the ELCA’s seminaries.

Some of the church’s colleges were founded as prep schools for seminary. While they may have outgrown that function, college-seminary connections are still vital.

Guy Erwin, president of United Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania, said he values the colleges’ theologians and sees these institutions as “precious to the church.” And Kristin Largen, president of Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, said colleges and seminaries can team up in providing resources for students.

Over the past decade, three mergers have united ELCA colleges and seminaries: Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary is now part of California Lutheran University; Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio joined Capital University; and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary is organically joined with Lenoir-Rhyne University.

These mergers not only brought financial efficiencies that benefited both parties but enabled the universities to expand their outreach by offering a range of other degree programs on seminary campuses.

ELCA colleges and universities also enjoy reciprocal relationships around the world. Among U.S. baccalaureate institutions, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., ranks second in student engagement in international studies. About 75% of students participate in overseas study.

Through the Center for Public Service at Gettysburg (Pa.) College, students engage in a range of local, national and international projects, including support for the city of Gettysburg’s long sibling-city relationship with León, Nicaragua. Gettysburg College also capitalizes on its history and location, partnering with the Eisenhower Institute and the Civil War Institute.

At Concordia, each student participates in two Pivotal Experiences in Applied Knowledge (PEAK), many of which involve off-campus study trips. Craft said that PEAK enables the students, 75% of whom work part time, to reflect on their work as faithful “citizen professionals,” not just employees. “Being a college of the ELCA lays a claim on us to responsibly engage the world in which we live,” he added.

The future

Some experts in higher education see dark clouds on the horizon for small, independent colleges as falling birth rates in the 21st century signal a steep drop in enrollment in the middle of this decade. When pandemic relief funds expire, schools may face dire cost-cutting. Employers in some fields say they need workers with skills that are better developed in a technical school than a four-year college.

Faith-based colleges and universities won’t be exempt from these trials, but Wilhelm hopes that ELCA schools, recognized broadly for their high-caliber education and their formation of people for life callings, can navigate the challenges. “Our ELCA colleges and universities,” he said, “are among the leading communities of schools.”

Michael Cooper-White
Cooper-White, president emeritus of Gettysburg (now United) Lutheran Seminary, is currently serving as interim president of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas.  

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