Talk to faculty and students from 1998 about Boyce College, and they’ll probably say the word “small” at some point, because it was — in its first year as an accredited, four-year undergraduate institution, Boyce had just 89 bachelor’s-level students and 23 graduates. Two decades later, 1,199 students are enrolled in the college’s programs, and 150 students walked across the stage in Alumni Memorial Chapel to receive their degrees.

This landmark moment happened the same year that the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported a decrease in nationwide undergraduate enrollment for the sixth straight year. Yet at Boyce, enrollment has increased six of the last seven academic years, dating back to 2011. The growth has been regular and significant.

David DeKlavon, associate dean for academic administration, who had been hired in 1997 to serve in that role for Boyce Bible School, remembers the undergraduate school’s earliest days. There were only two degree programs, only one of which was a bachelor’s degree. In 1999, more degree programs were added — along with more students who were migrants from other Christian colleges that had recently closed their doors.

But the classes themselves were still small. DeKlavon’s first two classes were no more than 17 students, and some classes had even fewer. The enrollment increased gradually, giving administration enough time to build up the faculty and academic catalog gradually.

“The good thing is that back then, we didn’t look at this as eventually becoming over 1,000 students 20 years later. The main question was: How do we get through this semester?” DeKlavon said. “Because it grew incrementally, it never seemed overwhelming. Because it was semester-by-semester, in a sense we got to kind of start over again [each term].”

The faculty and students at Boyce were a tight-knit group, almost like entrepreneurs in a startup, said Matthew J. Hall, the school’s current dean.

“With alumni from that era, there is a remarkable loyalty and fondness for that season in Boyce’s history, because it was kind of a risk,” he said.

Within a year of its transition, the school — which had existed since 1974 but only started offering associate of arts degrees in 1994 — was accredited by the Southern Associate of Colleges and Schools to offer a bachelor of arts degree. And a bona fide four-year college was born.

One of the first faculty members was DeKlavon. During the Boyce Bible College days, the minimum permitted student age was 25 so the school wouldn’t compete with local colleges for enrollment. So once it became a four-year college, the student body was much older; the average student age in DeKlavon’s first class was 30.

At the time of R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s hiring as president, the responsibility for undergraduate and graduate education had been split between state Baptist conventions and the SBC, respectively. But in the mid-90’s, state conventions began breaking off from the Southern Baptist Convention, leaving a shortage of confessional and orthodox undergraduate Baptist institutions. The SBC changed its official mission statement around this time, allowing seminaries to include undergraduate education. In 1998, Mohler — who had been dedicated to making the seminary a thriving graduate school committed to the service of the SBC — turned his attention to a younger generation and led the Bible school to become a four-year college.

“For all kinds of reasons, it became clear to me that the great opportunity was to bring on this campus 18 to 22-year-olds,” Mohler said in a recent interview. “I’m as proud of Boyce College as of anything I can see on this campus over the last 25 years.”

Thinking like missiologists

Today, the college has grown in more than student and faculty numbers. A major 2014 renovation to the Mullins Complex gave Boyce students access to state-of-the-art facilities and made them more integral members of the Southern Seminary community. But the mission, according to Matt Hall, dean of Boyce College, remains the same: to increase the kingdom of God and fulfill the Great Commission.

“When we sit on that platform at graduation or commencement, every one of those students represents remarkable potential for the fulfillment of the Great Commission in ministry and service to the local church,” Hall said. “We don’t have a broad institutional mission like a secular university or a generically Christian college. We have a focused confessional identity. From the moment they show up here for orientation all the way to commencement, we’re consistently reiterating our greatest hopes and dreams for these students: that they would give themselves to Christ and his kingdom.”

Boyce College now offers 18 different degrees or certificates under five different academic programs: the bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, bachelor of science in biblical studies, associate of arts, and three different certificate programs — including the Worldview Certificate and the Seminary Wives’ Institute. The three most recent bachelor of science degrees — Business Administration, Teacher Education, and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) — provide “strategic opportunities” to continue that original mission, according to Hall. These programs provide platforms and vocational avenues for students to serve outside strictly ministry contexts, he said.

While other Christian colleges take pride in their Bible courses, Boyce tries to take it one step further: a core Bible program of nearly 40 hours — even for business, education, and PPE majors. This gives teachers the chance to influence a broad array of Christians headed to the marketplace, classroom, or statehouse — not just the pulpit.

“That’s particularly strategic given the cultural moment and context we’re in where we’re going to need to do more and more. We’re going to think more and more like global missiologists about our own backyard,” Hall said. “Many of our students will go teach in an overtly missiological context, but every one of our graduates is a missionary. ”

That cultural moment affects more than the classroom. Boyce, like Southern Seminary, is part of a small number of accredited institutions of higher learning in the United States that forgo federal and state financial aid programs. This is primarily because the Southern Baptist Convention has a policy that its institutions should not accept federal student aid. But that independence is also related to Boyce’s commitment to its theological and confessional convictions, Hall said. Although that comes with a short-term cost, it prepares the school for whatever the future holds.

“In the coming years, we’ll have to be clearer than ever about our biblical and theological conviction,” he said. “It will be increasingly untenable for confessional Christian colleges to take for granted that people know where we stand.”

Family matters

Every college faces the challenge of sustaining residential education in the 21st century when online education is more readily available than ever before. Boyce does offer three degrees fully online (A.A. and B.A. in biblical and theological studies, along with a B.S. in business administration), but that programming is the outer layer in three concentric circles of emphasis, according to Hall. The next circle is students who commute to on-campus courses while living off campus, while the central circle is the full residential experience. While the quality of online education is improving at a rapid pace, Hall said, the residential degree program is the “gold standard.”

“There’s a maximizing effect for learning that happens when you not only study on the campus, but you live on the campus because learning is happening 24/7 as you are involved in this community.”
This emphasis on the residential experience engenders a rich, multi-generational community, as 18-year-old Boyce students interact on a daily basis with 28-year-old graduate students with spouses and children. For Hall, this reflects a common refrain in the New Testament — that older men should disciple younger men and older women should disciple younger women. Mohler called the dynamic “nothing less than spectacular” for both the 18-year-old and the 28-year-old.

“You’ve got 18-year-olds who are just leaving home, and they have a quintessential college experience at Boyce,” Mohler said. “But they’re surrounded by 20-somethings hand-in-hand, pushing strollers filled with babies. There’s just something incredibly healthy about that.”

DeKlavon noted that the school is starting to see second-generation Boyce College students, as graduates from the late-90s are now sending their children to Boyce. That’s another sign of the effective growth of the school, he said.

“One advantage when you’ve been here for 20 years is to see where the students who have come before have gone,” he said. “We get to find out from them how their parents have been faithful throughout the years. To me, that’s the exciting part — not only did we think in theory that this was going to work, but now we can look back over 20 years and see it really has.”

Despite the significant numeric growth at Boyce during the last 20 years, Hall said higher enrollment numbers should never be the primary focus of a Christian institution. Watchwords like “faithfulness,” “quality,” and “excellence” ought to mark institutions like Boyce, he said, with the ultimate goal of making disciples across the globe. And that metric will take much longer than 20 years to be finalized.

Andrew J.W. Smith is news manager at Southern Seminary and an M.Div. graduate.