Photo and Story by DAN SMITH
Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., a guy who was named Business Executive of the Year a while back by the now defunct Blue Ridge Business Journal made an impressive sales pitch for his vision of higher education today at the periodic Bankers' Forum at the Shenandoah Club in Roanoke. His audience was lawyers and bankers, many of they who share his conservative philosophy, but some who didn't. All seemed impressed.
Falwell, like his father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, was full of warmth and humor of statistics and insider information in building his case for private education. Falwell has taken what started as Liberty Bible College and turned it into a national force in 20 years. The college has a total enrollment (on campus and online) of 64,000 students in its most recent census and is heading toward 80,000 shortly.
Its almost overwhelming debt of 1988 ($83 million) has been nearly paid off and it recently received a AA/positive rating from Standard & Poor's when it wanted to issue bonds. The university is accredited by the tough and demanding Southern Association of Colleges and Universities (something other online universities simply don't have) and the cost of four years of education at the school is $38,664, compared to $124,000 at private universities.
Falwell said that early on, the goal was to be in the bottom 25 percent of universities in student cost and that has been achieved. The university is also has a student loan default rate that is half the national average--taking some of the bite out of the nearly half a billion in student loans its students had in 2010. That's up over $500,000 this year, Falwell says.
The student body, which is but 42 percent white, is one of the most diverse in the country and the university has set out on an ambitious construction period, beginning with the building of a state-of-the-art library to be named after the senior Falwell.
Liberty recently received $12 million in matching money from the federal tobacco fund, which it will use to build a medical school to serve rural Southside Virginia. Falwell says it is the first significant government money the school has ever received. "The government has generally been in the way," he said, smiling.
Falwell says a number of universities have consulted with Liberty about its distance learning program and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell asked him to be on a panel to talk about how it is done. "It is very expensive and difficult to start," he said, "but it is well worth the effort. We believe that is the way education is going in the future. We are going slow in our residential growth until we fully understand what all this means."
The success, he says, partly comes down "to the fact that we were so poor for so long that we had to learn to be frugal."