Mennonite enrollment still declining

Fewer Mennonites are studying at MC USA-affiliated colleges and universities

Bethel College students Rachel Geyer, Peter Buller, Seth Rudeen and Stephany Meyer lead singing during a chapel service in November. — Chase Dempsey/Bethel College Bethel College students Rachel Geyer, Peter Buller, Seth Rudeen and Stephany Meyer lead singing during a chapel service in November. — Chase Dempsey/Bethel College

Mennonite enrollment is down at Mennonite Church USA colleges and universities, as a decade-long decline shows few hints of rebounding.

Mennonite Education Agency’s ­annual enrollment report revealed ­ea­rlier this year that the numbers of Mennonite-­identifying full-time undergraduate students at MC USA-­affiliated colleges and universities are between one-third and half the levels they were a decade ago.

The number of such students decreased from 773 to 502 between fall 2017 and fall 2022 — a 35% drop. The 2022 number is about one-third of the 1,504 Mennonite undergraduates who were enrolled in MC USA’s five higher education institutions in 2008.

The number of students specifically from MC USA congregations is lower still. There were 358 MC USA undergraduates at MEA schools last fall, representing 12.5% of the overall enrollment. MC USA students numbered 1,021 a decade earlier in the fall of 2013, when they made up 31.5% of total enrollment.

At Hesston College, 44 Mennonite students were enrolled last fall, down from 145 in 2013 and 223 in 2008.

Sara Hadaway, Hesston’s director of marketing and communications, said the vast majority of faith-based colleges and universities in the U.S. have experienced enrollment declines within their denominations. MC USA membership decreased by more than half since it formed in 2002, from 112,688 to about 52,000 today.

“The higher education enrollment cliff is knocking at our doors,” she said. “Every year in America, there are fewer people turning 18 years of age, and in turn, a smaller class of prospects from which to recruit.”

Representatives from Bethel College and Goshen College echoed the fact that there are fewer Mennonite students to go around. Bethel reported 74 full-time Mennonite students last fall, down from 139 in 2013 and 198 in 2010. Goshen counted 167 such students in 2022, down from 346 in 2013 and 510 in 2009 — the most of any MC USA college or university in the past 15 years.

MC USA-affiliated institutions Bluffton University and Eastern Mennonite University did not respond to requests for comment. Bluffton had 36 Mennonite students in the fall 2022, down from 139 in 2008. EMU went from 456 Mennonite students in 2008 to 181 in fall 2022.

Jodi Beyeler, Goshen’s vice president for communications and people strategy, noted that because the denomination is aging as well as declining in membership, the number of college students could be decreasing faster than overall membership.

“This may explain the additional 10% difference between Goshen College Mennonite enrollment decline and MC USA membership decline, though we can’t confirm that without better demographic data from MC USA,” she said. “We do not have reliable information about the number of college-going Mennonite students, which would give us a more accurate picture of the Mennonite enrollment pool.

“The MEA Youth Census [which used to share congregations’ contact information for potential students with colleges] has been discontinued because of data privacy concerns. Poor response rates and lack of broad congregational representation make the historical youth census data unreliable.”

Private school “sticker shock” — the overall cost before financial aid — may also play a role.

“While the actual price of a private college might be the same or even less than a state school, many families do not even consider a private or Mennonite college because of the sticker price,” Hadaway said.

All three colleges that responded to questions pointed out that the decrease in Mennonite students has resulted in more diverse campuses.

“Bethel College has benefited from the greater diversity of backgrounds and experiences of our students,” said Eric Preheim, Bethel’s director of admissions. “I don’t believe we have done anything to become less attractive to Mennonite students. We still have great support from our Mennonite students and families for the values we espouse and the Mennonite connections that exist at Bethel.”

In rare exceptions to the trend of ­decline, Bethel and Bluffton each ­added 11 Mennonite students last fall.

“We work hard to recruit students who would be a good fit for Bethel College,” Preheim said. “Enrollment went up again for the college, and we’re happy to say that our increase in Mennonite students was part of that growth.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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