Students shun Christian colleges
At a time when the viability of a college depends on how many students it can attract, local faith-based colleges are struggling to keep their enrolment levels steady without compromising their standards.
It is a real struggle which administrators at the Mandeville-based Regent College of the Caribbean had to confront as they changed the institution's name from the Jamaica Bible College in 2012.
Academic Dean Dr Bryan Wallace said that although the school continues to maintain its Christian values, the perception of them being a theological college was a deterrent to those who weren't called to be pastors.
"We sort of recognised that there was this prevailing perception that existed in the market, that we were just a Bible college," Wallace told The Sunday Gleaner.
Since changing its name, the institution has seen a drastic increase in student intake. In fact, the school's intake increased by up to 25 per cent within the first two years of the name change. Wallace believes that with so many colleges to choose from, students are more likely to attend those with fewer restrictions.
"You expect that people who are coming to your school must dress a certain way," he said.
"But that same student can go online and get a higher qualification without having to pay attention to this, so while you are discussing all of your values, you have to make sure that you pay attention to your market," added Wallace.
President of the Jamaica Theological Seminary, Dr Garnet Roper, said his institution is also considering a name change as the use of the word seminary is a misnomer. The school also decided to change its enrolment policy a few years ago so that it could take in at least 15 per cent non-professing Christians.
Roper believes that, like other colleges, faith-based tertiary institutions are struggling to attract students because of the current economic climate where there is limited access to funds and credit to pay tuition. Given the financial constraints, he believes students often feel more inclined to invest in secular colleges, although there are persons in secular jobs who value Christian education.
"Those who spend regard it primarily as an economic investment and, as such, they chose the institutions which have those programmes that are concretely economic and business in nature, that are along the production line of the basic economy. That is their first option. That has always been the case, but it is more so the case as people's personal situations become more difficult," said Roper.
Though a liberal arts institution, the Seventh-day Adventist-operated Northern Caribbean University saw worrying enrolment figures and has been harshly criticised over the years for it's strict policies governing student life on campus and it's focus on Christian values.
At least one student publicly threatened to leave the institution last year after she was suspended for two weeks because of the role she played in a cheerleading routine. The 21-year-old female student had allegedly played the part of a male cake topper who kissed another female's hand.
Last December, the University's president Dr Trevor Gardner said his faith was tested to the core in 2014, despite the academic success of NCU students.
"NCU had an eventful year of extreme financial challenges, worrying enrolment figures, and moments when it had to re-evaluate its values and determine whether or not there is yet space in the marketplace for individuals of integrity, honesty, and a strong work ethic," shared Gardner.
Fortunately for president of the United Theological College of the West Indies (UTCWI), the Rev Dr Marjorie Lewis, the institution's Christian values are not generally challenged because most of the students are sent by their churches.
The salaries of the lecturers and tuition for most of the students are also paid for by the church that nominated them for ministerial training.
The UTCWI is responsible for training ministers for the Anglican, Moravian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and United churches in the Caribbean, but given the financial challenges facing churches today, Lewis said there has been a reduction in the number of students being sponsored by the churches.
"'We have some level of decline, but we have some special circumstances that give us some advantages over others," she said.
Among the advantages is the fact that the school is linked to the University of the West Indies and so students pursuing studies at that university can select courses or minor in theology through UTCWI. There is also the fact that the school has partnered with First Heritage Co-operative Credit Union, which provides loans for students who have to pay their own way.
President of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology, Dr Las Newman, said his institution has also been faring better than other faith-based tertiary institutions because it does not cater for undergraduate level students.
"Our enrolment has not fallen. Our enrolment is still flat, but it is going to increase because we have lowered our tuition fees. We have a massive discount in tuition fees for all our programmes and people are responding well and are saying it's a little bit more affordable, given our economic situation," said Newman.