As Goshen College celebrates its 125th anniversary, many reflect on its long-lasting legacy as a Mennonite-affiliated institution and its changing student body.
GC was initially founded in 1894 as the Elkhart Institute of Science, Industry and the Arts, a small privately-owned school by H.A. Mumaw. The Elkhart Institute gave Mennonites and others the opportunity to further their education in ways that represented Mennonite values.
Although GC has a historical relationship with the Mennonite Church, it has experienced substantial demographic changes in student enrollment and a decline in self-identified Mennonite students.
In the last decade, the percentage of enrolled Mennonites has decreased from 50% in 2009 to 24% in 2019, a trend that is becoming more common among Mennonite institutions.
Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library, has witnessed and studied change at GC and attributes it to the transition away from rural life that decreased family size and to the growing educational interests of Mennonites that extended beyond pursuing a “Mennonite education.”
“As the identity changed, the size of families decreased, and that is true not just for Mennonites but also for many different people,” Springer said. “Although there are still Mennonite students, there is no longer the sense of only receiving higher education in a Mennonite institution.”
As an institution, GC has had to transform itself to meet the needs of its growing diverse student body that is no longer predominantly Mennonite.
As the director of institutional research and assessment at GC, Justin Heinzekehr has tracked the declining-Mennonite-student trend for a long time.
“I think the trend at GC is sort of mirroring a trend in the denomination as a whole, so membership in Mennonite Church USA has been declining for a long time also,” said Heinzekehr. “I think it has a lot of implications for how we do things at Goshen College.”
Despite the fact that GC is affiliated with the Mennonite denomination, both Springer and Heinzekehr agree that there is a diverse and a wide variety of theological perspectives and practices in Mennonite Church USA that includes people of different backgrounds.
Springer and Heinzekehr are pleased to see how diverse GC is becoming, even if Mennonite student enrollment is declining.
“Because I value Goshen College and would like it to survive, I rejoice in seeing that we are becoming a different place,” said Springer. “Having lived through the changes and seeing what it would be like if we didn’t change, I think that the only response I can have is, ‘Great, let’s go for it.’”
“We probably have been able to be even more diverse than we could’ve been in the past by attracting different students,” Heinzekehr said. “Goshen College has really benefited from having a more diverse student body in recent years, and that has been a really positive thing.”