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July 27, 2012 6:19 PM God (and Debt) is Very, Very Good to Liberty University

By Daniel Luzer

In 1971 the Rev Jerry Falwell founded the institution that eventually became Liberty University in part in order to counter the dangers of secular education and promote a biblical worldview. The school struggled for years, leading to Falwell’s interesting financial relationship with the Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon. But now it seems Liberty is doing quite well financially. How did they do it?

According to a piece by Liz Barry in The News & Advance:

Liberty University’s net assets have sustained a fivefold increase — from $150 million to $860 million — over the past six years, driven by the rapid expansion of Liberty’s online programs.
As of June, Liberty officials said the school had about $860 million in net assets and expects that number to exceed $1 billion by year’s end — a major milestone for the university.

Because the university is a nonprofit, however, it must plow all of that money back into the school. So Liberty has some huge construction projects going on.

Liberty was able to make so much money because it has only 12,500 students on campus. It has more than 80,000 online students, however. While it’s much cheaper to educate students taking the classes by computer, Liberty still charges online students the equivalent of about $10,000, which appears to allow the university considerable extra cash.

Liberty’s good fortune is not quite so good for its undergraduates, however. Liberty University graduates have an average debt burden of $30,656 upon graduation. The average college graduate, in contrast, carries only about $25,000 of debt upon graduation.

“I’m fascinated with Liberty’s model…” The chief investment officer of the management firm that controls Liberty’s assets told Barry. “Even the top universities are still trying to figure out this online thing. It’s amazing that Liberty is this far along.”

It might be amazing, but it’s not that complicated. Liberty students simply take out large amounts of debt to pay for the tuition. And Liberty charges a lot more in tuition than it actually needs to operate.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer