Innovation Key to Immense Growth
LAKELAND, Florida — Lakeland, a growing city of 112,641 along the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, has plenty of land and lakes. There are 38 named lakes in Lakeland and two of them, Bonny Lake and Lake Holloway, abut the campus of Southeastern University, the largest Assemblies of God school in the nation.
Commuter students, who comprise 29% of the student body, have plenty of places to park on the sprawling 88-acre campus dotted by palm and mesquite trees. Even in January, when the average high is 74 degrees, many students traverse the verdant grounds wearing shorts and sit outside at the numerous tables and chairs available for study.
Spanish-style architecture dominates the 23 buildings on campus. Edifices are in great shape, thanks to recent construction and remodeling. Balmy weather is an obvious draw, hurricane season notwithstanding. A pair of hurricanes blew through campus during the fall semester, although once inland the storms tended to fizzle.
The student numbers have burgeoned to the point where various restaurants set up shop on campus: Back Yard Burgers, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Papa John’s Pizza, Chick-fil-A, and Portico Coffeehouse. The school cafeteria is Tuscana Ristorante, an attractive eatery that offers an Italian entrée daily, as well as gluten-free meals, vegetarian dishes, all-day breakfast, a full salad bar, and other options.
Among traditional students — 60% of whom are female — 23% are AG. Ethnic minorities represent 42.5% of students, making Southeastern even more diverse than Florida State University, a public research institution in Tallahassee.
“We want to celebrate that every person is created in God’s image,” says Southeastern University President Kent J. Ingle, 60. “So many students, especially ministry majors, will be serving in diversified communities across the world.”
AVENUES OF GROWTH
The school experienced impressive advancement during the decade-long tenure of Mark Rutland, expanding from 700 to 3,000 students. After Rutland left in 2009 to lead Oral Roberts University, Southeastern didn’t have a president for two years. In the interim, enrollment dipped by 700.
But in Ingle’s 11 years at the helm, the school has experienced a phenomenal 243% increase, to the current enrollment of 10,044. Although a majority of the students are from Florida, at least 200 apiece come from California, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Southeastern is the fourth fastest-growing private nonprofit master’s institution in the nation.
“We’ve grown because we have stayed true to the mission of helping students discover their divine destiny and calling,” Ingle says. “Through spiritual empowerment, students are serving Christ, the Church, and the world.”
It helps that Southeastern is a leader in innovation, no more apparent than in the school establishing 203 extension sites, primarily churches. Students affiliated with a Southeastern extension location have a site director and build community with others likewise attending. These students typically are seeking a degree and are enrolled for multiple years. More than one in five Southeastern students, 2,078, come via this method.
In addition, Southeastern has forged academic partnerships with organizations that are not bound to a single location. For example, the school has a partnership with a national home-school organization that enrolls students with Southeastern for dual credit. Such students learn in a local home-school community and enroll for dual credit online. These learners — currently 1,323 of them — typically are enrolled course-by-course rather than on a path to a degree.
Indeed, the largest chunk of students, 2,540 of them, are dual-enrolled — concurrently — in two distinct academic programs or educational institutions. Most are taking college courses while still attending high school.
Finally, Southeastern has another 660 students taking classes directly online.
“There are multiple ways to deliver education besides the traditional campus,” Ingle says.
The latest trend is developing cohorts with church ministry staff for a master’s or doctoral degree.
Southeastern is seeking new ways of making education affordable and a $1 million grant is helping to devise a method called competency-based education (CBE). One of the benefits of CBE is the ability to offer subscription-based tuition.
Michael A. Steiner, vice president for innovation and communication, a new position at Southeastern, says a cornerstone to the school’s strategic plan is implementation of this subscription-based education.
“For the price of a monthly car payment, students will be able to take as many courses as they want,” says Steiner, 30. “It’s a Netflix way of doing education.”
Another benefit of CBE is allowing students with prior and demonstrative experience the reward of moving faster through the program. Traditionally, a ministry major, for instance, must demonstrate an ability to preach sermons and exegete Scripture by the end of the course. However, a well-seasoned pastor wouldn’t need to endure classes in which a proficiency already is apparent. In this competency-based model, rather than merely grading papers, faculty serve as guides who actively provide feedback that fosters skill development.
Despite all the nontraditional options, there is nothing like athletics when it comes to being a part of a campus environment. Early in his tenure, Ingle met with a variety of constituency listening groups that all reiterated the point.
“A common thread throughout was the desire to grow sports,” Ingle says. “Sports is a big component of campus culture. Sports bring people together and fires up the community.”
Southeastern athletes compete in 19 varsity sports programs through the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in the Sun Conference and Appalachian Athletic Conference.
In the South, no sport is more popular than football. Ingle wanted to ensure that the school built a football stadium on site as a way to energize the student body as well as alumni. The Southeastern Fire have had nine winning seasons since starting play in 2014. Victory Field is situated at the entrance of the school.
It helps that the athletic programs at Southeastern are not merely competitive, but often dominating. The baseball team is the reigning NAIA World Series champions after going 59-4 in 2022, the most wins for a NAIA school since 1965. Track and field teams as well as the wrestling squad (Southeastern is the only AG school with NAIA wrestling) also have claimed individual national championships in recent years. Last season, the women’s basketball team put together a 33-2 season. Women’s golf claimed its first Sun Conference championship in 2022.
Ingle went into a sports broadcasting career even before earning a broadcast journalism degree from the AG’s Vanguard University in Costa Mesa. At an NBC affiliate in Bakersfield, Ingle learned the ins and outs of writing, editing, producing, and videography.
SWITCH TO MINISTRY
Ingle grew up in South California and attended Bakersfield First Assembly in high school, mentored by pastor (and future SoCal Network superintendent) Fred Cottriel.
“He taught me to stay in tune with the way God created me so I would always have a sense of fulfillment,” says Ingle, who also holds a master’s degree in theological studies from Vanguard and a doctor of ministry from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
Ingle advanced to a plum sports anchor job at the prestigious NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, interviewing athletes such as Michael Jordan, Pete Rose, and Muhammad Ali. But after a decade in sports broadcasting, Ingle says a cataclysmic event propelled him to switch to full-time ministry.
His only sibling and her husband both graduated from the AG’s Central Bible College and served as youth pastors. En route home from a church event, a drunk driver struck their vehicle, killing the husband and wife instantly.
Ingle went on to pastor the next 10 years, at New Hope Church in Thousand Oaks, California, and at Highland Fellowship Church in Elgin, Illinois. He also served as dean of the Northwest University College of Ministry immediately before taking the helm at Southeastern.
Ingle and his wife, Karen, have three adopted children: Davis, Kaila, and Paxton.