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Capitalizing on Niche Learning

LABI College focuses on internet curriculum while preparing to find a new campus.
LA PUENTE, California — Latin American Bible Institute (LABI) College, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, is tucked away in quiet neighborhood, bounded by residences, manufacturing plants, and offices of the Southern Pacific District, one of the 14 Hispanic districts of the Assemblies of God. The oldest Pentecostal Hispanic Bible college in the nation has resided on the 6-acre campus since 1950.

LABI is led by the bilingual Marty L. Harris, a cheerful president who thrives on challenges. In his seven-plus years at the helm, LABI has stabilized and thrived, mining a niche market of students seeking biblical training.

Last year, LABI earned accreditation from the Association for Biblical Higher Education. In 2018, the school received California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education approval.

In 2020, LABI likewise obtained authorization to receive Title IV financial aid, allowing students to gain access to federal Pell grants. The subsidy for needy students doesn’t need to be paid back. More than 90% of LABI students receive institutional and/or financial aid.

“We still discourage students taking out student loans,” Harris says. “We have a 95-year history of students graduating with zero student loan debt and we want that to continue.”

Harris isn’t focused on pouring funds into campus maintenance because he anticipates it will be sold soon. LABI is actively seeking to relocate, likely to a less congested and less expensive Southern California spot that could house an updated cafeteria, library, and dormitories. Another potential option is staying on the existing site and buying the adjacent Southern Pacific District property in order to expand.

“The main reason for the sale of the property is to find a location that might help us with our preferred future, build out an even better campus, with greater space, and opportunity for the next 50 years of growth,” Harris says.

Harris is preparing to launch a $5 million capital campaign for wherever the new digs will be situated. Much of his time these days is spent meeting with potential donors.

“I’m not really good asking for funds, but it must be done,” Harris acknowledges. “I’m not that great a grant writer either, but I learned from my mistakes.” In 2020, LABI received an unprecedented trio of Lilly Endowment grants totaling around $2 million.

The Detroit-born Harris is the 17th president in the school’s history.

Harris isn’t a very Hispanic name, but his father, a Russian Jewish immigrant, anglicized his surname upon arrival at Ellis Island. His Mexican mother, Maria Teresa Rodriguez-Harris, became a farm migrant worker. Harris learned to speak Spanish living in Tijuana for two years with his mother after his parents divorced when he was 3.

He never figured he would become a Christian college president because he has an academic rather than pastoral background.

“This wasn’t a place I thought of coming to, but when you hear God’s call, it’s clear,” he says.

At the urging of respected Hispanic pastor Danny de León, Harris last year documented a 5-year, 10-step vision statement for LABI. Several of the proposed steps already have been accomplished.

“Dr. Marty Harris is one of the best grant writers in the nation, and our Bible school has been greatly blessed by his gifts, hard work, and outstanding leadership,” says Southern Pacific Superintendent Sergio Navarrete, an LABI board member and a former president of the school. “LABI is now an accredited Bible college and our students qualify for federal financial aid. The future looks very bright for our school.”

One of the unique aspects of LABI is that few of its students live on campus. Restrictions enacted because of the coronavirus crisis spurred the school to switch the bulk of its educational tools to the internet.

“The pandemic forced us to pivot quickly to use the resources we had by offering online learning,” says Harris, 54.

Through 70 church extension sites, the school is teaching mostly Spanish-language classes to 1,700 students. Those students are enrolled to obtain in a certificate program, the equivalent of an associate’s degree. The affiliated Latin American Theological Seminary, started for Spanish-speaking pastors by Hispanic Pentecostal icon Jesse Miranda in 1977, has 300 students. Harris also is president of the seminary.

LABI has transfer agreements with schools such as Fuller Seminary, Azusa Pacific University, and Vanguard University to allow graduates to continue their education for a master’s degree, most often in Spanish. Vanguard is the collaborative institution of choice. Harris taught there for a decade, his wife, Nancy, worked there, and his two daughters, Nancy and Maricella, attended there.

“We want Vanguard to be the number one transfer school for students desiring to change majors,” says Harris, who also serves on the adjunct counseling psychology faculty of Azusa Pacific Seminary.

Harris concedes LABI must do better at recruiting non-Hispanic students.

“We need more diversity here,” he says. Whites, Blacks, and Asians could essentially attend the school for free on diversity scholarships that are available, he says.

“Our hope is to diversify academic programming,” says Harris, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Washington State University. “Not all our programs are accredited yet, but they will be. There are reasons for me to stick around.”

LABI will launch a marriage family therapy program next year — just as Harris did two decades ago while a tenured faculty member at Vanguard.

“We hope to move to computer-based learning at one’s own pace,” Harris says. In that scenario, a student wouldn’t be required to sit in a classroom, but could take courses from home tailored to his or her needs, demonstrating competency along the way.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.