When a school experiences rapid growth in a short amount of time, it is bound to have a far-reaching impact beyond its own borders.
As the world’s largest and fastest growing Christian university, Liberty University has branched out from its humble beginnings as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971. It is now the largest private, non-profit school in the country and the largest four-year school in Virginia, offering more than 232 exceptional undergraduate and graduate programs on its Central Virginia campus and 288 programs globally online.
While its growth was gradual at first, the last decade’s enrollment has spiked at an unprecedented rate. A study by Mangum Economic Consulting, LLC of Richmond, Va., on the economic impact of Liberty University to the region shows that between 1992 and 2009, fall enrollment increased from 8,500 to 46,949, an increase of 38,449 students, or 452 percent. Since the completion of the study, Liberty has grown even more — more than 100,000 students are now enrolled, with more than 90,000 taking classes online.
With its rising enrollment necessitating many academic and facility improvements, Liberty is making a mark on the community like it never has before. The ripple effect can be seen throughout the region, as more students are volunteering their time to help neighbors in need, contributing to the workforce after graduation and spending money to bolster the regional economy. The fiscal contributions alone are making an impact on local business, as Liberty students, employees and staff were responsible for $217 million in direct spending to the Lynchburg area in 2009.
Illuminated by the vision of its founder, the late Dr. Jerry Falwell, Liberty is not hiding in its own shadow, but shining its light on a region poised for a bright future.
Playing games with children, painting houses and reading to nursing home residents are just a few acts of community service Liberty University students offer the Lynchburg area. Each semester, students volunteer their time and talents to impact the Lynchburg area in a positive way and share the love of Jesus Christ.
Liberty students, faculty and staff contributed 674,879 hours of service hours in Lynchburg in 2009, according to a recent economic impact study, with the average student volunteering 4.3 hours each month. The report says that the monetary value of these volunteer hours – just at minimum wage – would equal $4.9 million.
Liberty University requires students to complete a minimum of 20 hours of community service each semester to fulfill graduation requirements. The purpose of this requirement is to train students to give back to their local communities and to use their abilities to help others.
Students are connected to non-profit organizations through the Christian/Community Service (CSER) office on campus. The CSER office works to support the mission of Liberty to serve others and to demonstrate Christ’s love by facilitating volunteer opportunities and personal service evaluations.
“We see serving others as a mandate in Scripture to all believers,” said Troy Matthews, associate director of CSER and an associate professor. “We also believe that it is an integral part of our academic program.”
Each semester, the CSER office receives numerous letters and emails from area organizations telling how they benefit from volunteers. This year, the office has received positive feedback from students’ supervisors at the YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Virginia, Lynchburg City Schools and many others.
Anne Wagner of Lynchburg City Schools expressed her gratification for student volunteers, noting the help from Kaitlin Royer, a junior psychology major who served as a volunteer with the Occupational Therapy and Vision Department of Laurel Regional School, a special education center and division of Lynchburg City Schools.
“I had high expectations before she came,” she said. “I expected efficiency, professionalism, dependability and flexibility — and with Kaitlin, I found all of that.”
Other organizations benefitting from the volunteer efforts of students and employees include the American Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Salvation Army, local Humane Societies and local churches, among others.
When Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. gave his “state of the university” address at the April 28, 2010, convocation, he said Liberty University has grown “beyond our wildest expectations” and proceeded to reel off mind-boggling statistics about the school’s phenomenal growth.
The lofty figures were part of an economic impact study commissioned by Liberty. Among other findings, the report shows an enrollment increase of 452 percent in the last 17 years and an employment increase of 351 percent in the last nine years.
Fortunately for the surrounding region, the economic boom on Liberty Mountain extends well beyond Liberty’s borders and benefits many more than its students and employees. Most of the dollars that flow into the economy from students hailing from every state and 80 countries stay in the area, boosting revenues for area businesses and municipalities.
According to the study, of the $268 million in Liberty-related spending statewide in 2009, a net $180 million remained in the state, creating close to $283 million in activity as it rippled through Virginia’s economy. Stated another way, every Liberty dollar spent in Virginia in 2009 ultimately generated $1.57 in overall economic activity.
In 2009 Liberty was also responsible for generating about $5.4 million in tax revenue for the city of Lynchburg, including 4 percent of the city’s real property tax revenue, 8 percent of its personal property tax revenue, 9 percent of its restaurant food tax revenue, 17 percent of its hotel/motel tax revenue and 2 percent of local sales tax revenue. Along with its students, employees, tenants and visitors, Liberty accounted for approximately $8.4 million in tax revenue for the region.
“Liberty quite simply is an economic engine,” said Marjette G. Upshur, director of the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development, “… an integral part of economic development in the city of Lynchburg and Region 2000 [which consists of Lynchburg and the immediate surrounding counties]. We have known Liberty has a significant impact on our regional economy; this study measures that impact.”
In 2007, the university contracted Greater Lynchburg Transit Company as its exclusive bus transportation vendor. The partnership proved to be a win-win solution. At Liberty, it resulted in reduced parking and traffic congestion in and around campus; for GLTC, the $1.5 million annual contract enabled the carrier to upgrade its entire regional bus fleet.
Liberty has also contributed to the area economy through its revitalization projects, including $500,000 in improvements to the Plaza shopping center in midtown Lynchburg. The center now creates income for the university while boosting city tax revenues.
Many tourism dollars find their way to the region through Liberty, as seen in lodging expenditures and revenues. Visitors to the university purchased 59,545 hotel room nights in 2009, or one out of every nine hotel nights purchased in the region, and accounted for roughly one out of every $7 in area hotel revenue, which totaled $5.6 million last year.
“This study validates Liberty University’s contribution to the Lynchburg community. Many have speculated about Liberty’s financial impact but this study conservatively and objectively quantifies exactly what that impact has been,” Falwell said.
According to a recent economic impact study, Liberty University supported 5,179 local jobs in 2009.
“Given that the city of Lynchburg’s total employment in 2009 is estimated to have been 52,776,” the report states, “… approximately one out of every 10 jobs within the city were either directly or indirectly attributable to Liberty University.”
On Liberty’s campus from 2001-2010, the number of positions increased by 351 percent, a total growth of 3,023 jobs. Additionally, between 2008 and 2009, the city of Lynchburg experienced a 4 percent decline in total employment while Liberty University experienced a 25 percent increase.
Despite the decrease in total jobs in the city of Lynchburg, an April 2010 report by Forbes ranked Lynchburg 28th in the nation in its “Best Places for Business and Careers” listing, a great leap from being ranked 70th in 2009.
Liberty has also been contributing to the job market by training graduates ready to meet the needs of key industries in the area. For example, the economic impact report revealed that the university has met 100 percent of the region’s demand for professionals in nursing, business and commerce, accounting, business administration and management, graphic design, law and other industries.
Carrie L. Barnhouse, director of Liberty University’s Career Center, said, “More than 200 employers came to campus during this academic year [2009-10] to recruit LU students for full-time, part-time and internship positions. Many of these businesses have communicated that a majority of their interns and employees come from Liberty students.”
Susan Brandt, a spokesperson for Centra Health (the largest employer in the city of Lynchburg, according to the Virginia Employment Commission), said “Liberty University is an important provider of nursing graduates to our health system.”
Liberty’s Career Center serves to offer its students with professional development, job preparation skills and networking abilities to help them secure their own careers after graduation.
“The local community provides a huge network of employers and businesses who not only provide opportunities for our students, but seek our Liberty students as employees,” said Barnhouse.
Lynchburg is a city steeped in heritage and history and Liberty University has quickly become a part of that unique culture. Since 1971, Liberty has been offering not only exceptional academic programs, but also high profile entertainment and unique recreational activities to area residents.
“We want to provide opportunities for the community to come to Liberty and see firsthand our Christian environment and the great facilities that we have to offer,” said Ernest Carter, director of Events Management for Liberty.
In the 2009-10 school year alone, Liberty has hosted events ranging from the Homeschool Sports Network National Basketball Tournament, to theater productions, to a bridal tradeshow, to concerts in a variety of genres, including Skillet, The Fray, Switchfoot and TobyMac.
Although these events impacted Lynchburg’s economy positively by bringing thousands of people into the area, Liberty has also become a pillar of support in the community. One example came in January when the university donated the use of its Schilling Center for the National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment departure ceremony.
“Being able to provide something that would take a little weight off their shoulders before they leave to serve our country was a great thing,” Carter said. “It’s really representative of how Liberty wants to give back to the community.”
Many Liberty facilities are open to the public daily, including the LaHaye Ice Center, which welcomed more than 100,000 people in 2009, according to the economic impact study, and the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre, North America’s first year-round ski and snowboard facility featuring Snowflex, a patented synthetic material. The facility opened in August 2009 and has hosted events such as the Dew Games, an open competition for skiers and snowboarders.
Liberty also fields 20 NCAA Division 1 men’s and women’s athletic teams, giving Lynchburg a home team to root for on a national sports scene. In Fall 2010, thousands more fans can watch the Flames in action as the first phase of the Williams Stadium expansion project will be completed. Once finished, the stadium will seat 30,000 fans.
“I think it is amazing what we are accomplishing with God’s help,” Chancellor Falwell said last year when announcing the renovation plans. “The sky’s the limit for Liberty.”
While Liberty University’s story of making significant contributions to the community can be told in facts and figures, perhaps the biggest impact can be shown in the hearts of its students.
“As I see all the growth that is taking place at Liberty, it is comforting to me to know that, unlike so many colleges that were founded as Christian institutions but now go virtually unnoticed for those roots, Liberty University has not strayed from its core principles,” said Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. “As the world’s largest Christian university, we are not only producing graduates with the knowledge and skills to succeed in their careers, but also with hearts to impact their world for Christ — our original mission.”
Liberty provides a vibrant spiritual environment that is unmatched at other schools. Inside its walls, a strong core of student leaders provide personal support and prayer for their peers, weekly convocations bring in popular Christian leaders from around the world and Campus Church and other special services throughout the year encourage students in their faith.
With the world’s largest Christian university in its backyard, Lynchburg-area congregations also regularly take advantage of Liberty’s spiritual events, attending concerts with top Christian artists and conferences featuring some of the most popular Christian leaders of the day.
Liberty’s spiritual impact continues with dedicated Christian faculty and staff who are committed to bringing their faith into the classroom.
“Today, though we are far from perfect, less excellent than we soon will be … the reality is that, more rapidly than anyone expected or hoped, LU has become even better because of the dedicated and superior work of the faculty, staff and leadership of this institution,” said Dr. Ron Godwin, Liberty’s vice chancellor.
On an old patch of farmland in the 1970s, Dr. Jerry Falwell gathered his young college students in the snow to pray for what would become a more than 7,000-acre campus sprawling with dormitories, state-of-the art classrooms and recreational facilities that never before existed in Central Virginia.
“We believe God’s going to help us build the greatest Christian school in the world,” he told them.
Almost four decades later, that vision has been fulfilled.
“With more than 60,000 students enrolled at Liberty University, one of my father’s dreams has been realized,” Falwell, Jr. said. “It is evident now that God honored the faith of my father and many longtime Liberty supporters in ways they never could have imagined and much sooner than they ever expected.”
Many others can testify to the extraordinary results of one man’s vision.
“Of all the miracles I’ve seen in my life, I don’t think any of them are greater than the miracle that is Liberty University and what God has done through the life of Jerry Falwell,” said Elmer Towns, Liberty co-founder and dean of the School of Religion.
Area businessman Wayne Booth, a member of Liberty’s Board of Trustees, reviewed the recent economic impact study on the community and was thrilled.
“The vision that is right here [in the study] is what the late Dr. Jerry Falwell saw,” he said. “And I was part of that in 1970, as one of the co-sponsors of this university. He could see these things and I couldn’t — and now they’re becoming a reality to us, and it’s so much greater than what we could think or dream about. It is such a phenomenal thing that has happened on this mountain here.”
* The study, “Analysis of the Economic Contribution that Liberty University makes to Region 2000 and Virginia,” was conducted by Mangum Economic Consulting, LLC of Richmond, Va., and based on fiscal year 2009 data.