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Conservative America’s Favorite Christian University Is Thriving — Because Of Progressive Policies

Ted Cruz announces his candidacy for president at Liberty University in March, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK
Ted Cruz announces his candidacy for president at Liberty University in March, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK

Liberty University — an evangelical Christian college and the nation’s largest private non-profit university with around 74,000 students — has long served as a farm school for conservatives. Based in Lynchburg, Virginia, the school has produced right-wing giants such as Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, and William Graham IV, a right-wing religious pundit and son of evangelist Billy Graham. Founded in 1971 by famed conservative Jerry Falwell, Liberty also operates as a training ground Republican political candidates, with John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush delivering commencement addresses to students during election years, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently launching his campaign for president from the school’s auditorium.

All of these men, of course, have championed legislation they say combats the dangers of “big government.” This includes Cruz, who introduced an amendment in 2013 that would have repealed student loan reform and the Pell Grant expansions that were enacted in 2010.

But as Tobin Grant, a blogger for the Religion News Service and political science professor at Southern Illinois University, pointed out in the Washington Post on Tuesday, the rapid growth and success of Liberty University can be largely attributed to the expansion of federal financial aid for students — a policy passed and broadened by liberal Democrats.

In a chart-filled post, Grant analyzes the school’s explosion in enrollment over the past decade and a half, a trend he says is clearly spurred by the expansion of federal aid programs for students.

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“Fifteen years ago, Liberty had 5,939 undergraduate students and 735 graduate students. Last fall, the university enrolled 49,744 undergraduates and 31,715 graduate students,” Grant writes. “In the late 1990s, Liberty students received less than $20 million in aid. Students now receive over $800 million dollars a year in federal aid.

Liberty’s growth over the past decade would not have been possible without billions of dollars of support from the federal government

As with any federal financial aid, the grants and loans are awarded to students, not the university. Liberty does not receive any other federal funds, but its growth has come by attracting Christian students who qualify for aid.”

According to Grant, these polices helped bolster Liberty University’s unusual business model, which uses a moneymaking strategy pioneered by for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix while still remaining non-profit. This means the school relies heavily on distance learning, with almost 62,000 of their students are pursuing their degrees online. Over time, the school recruited so many students who rely on federal grants that the student body now receives tens of millions more in aid than the school takes in revenue.

“As with students at any higher education institution, students may take out loans and grants in excess of their tuition and fees. In 2014, Liberty collected $724 million in revenue, which was about $90 million less than federal aid to Liberty students,” Grant writes.

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Grant goes on to explain that Liberty’s surge in enrollment can be traced back to 2009, when the freshly inaugurated President Barack Obama passed a piece of legislation that conservatives still love to hate: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, often referred to as the stimulus package. Among other things, the legislation included an increase in Pell Grant funding by more than $15 billion dollars, which qualified around 800,000 more students for aid.

“From 2004 to 2009, enrollment [at Liberty] tripled to 30,000; federal aid quadrupled,” Grant notes. “Enrollment then doubled in the next five years while aid quadrupled again.”

Liberty students are plentiful, but they are far from the only beneficiaries of student loan expansions. Around nine million students received $33.7 billion from the Pell Grants program during the 2013–2014 school year, with roughly two-thirds of African American undergraduates and 51 percent of Latino undergraduates relying on the program to pay for school. Yet most students take out other loans as well, since the grants have failed to keep up with the cost of tuition: Pell Grants covered 77 percent of tuition at a four-year public university in 1980, but only amount to 36 percent of the same degree in 2011.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that Pell Grants will run out of funds by 2017, yet Republicans in Congress have repeatedly targeted the Pell Grant program for cuts, most recently by introducing a plan to slash $150 billion from higher education spending — shaving off $90 billion in funding for Pell Grants.

Grant concludes the post with a scathing indictment of this kind of hypocrisy, skewering Liberty University graduates and leaders who often accuse Democrats of wrongful “government overreach” while directly benefitting from their policies.

“For decades, Liberty University was a relatively small Bible college that often faced financial challenges,” Grant writes. “Like its founder, the college was known for its mix of fundamentalist Baptist theology with conservative politics that took aim at federal government overreach. But its growth over the past decade would not have been possible without billions of dollars of support from the federal government and, more specifically, liberal Democrats who pushed through an expansion of federal financial aid.”