LYNCHBURG (WSLS 10) - A "higher education phenomenon" that's what the recent 2016 State of the Commonwealth Report labeled Liberty University. From its humble beginnings of renting buildings to a $1 billion expansion over the last decade, Liberty's huge growth started after Jerry Falwell Senior's death and his son says it's not done yet. With goals of becoming the next University of Notre Dame or Brigham Young University, Liberty still has a lot of work to do.
"When you have this much growth this fast, it just takes a while for the word to get out," explained Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.
People across Virginia and the country are taking notice of Liberty University and its more than $1 billion endowment.
"There's always something going on. There's always a new Christian artist coming for a concert. There's always a famous speaker coming for a Convo," said Emma Rogers, a sophomore at Liberty.
"I really just fell in love with the school. The student life is awesome, the Christian life, fellowship," said Joey Valentini, a freshman at Liberty.
"Lynchburg would be really harmed without the reality of Liberty University. Real estate, the grocery stores, the restaurants, we really want to be a good neighbor, but we are really a very important part of what Lynchburg has become," said Dr. Ronald Hawkins, Liberty University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs who worked under Falwell Sr. and now under Falwell Jr. "To me what's happened here is really a miracle, Dr. Falwell Senior envisioned something and we all kind of shook our heads 'yes' because that was the kind thing to do when he described it, but none of us could see it like he could."
Hawkins said in the 1970s people thought of Lynchburg Baptist College, as it was known back then, as a little school on the hill with rented buildings, a small student population and not much respect.
"I think Jerry Senior was remarkable for his ability to bet the farm. He again and again would take risks that were really very bold and that put us on the edge of extinction," explained Hawkins.
The university is far from going under now as the Lynchburg region's largest employer at 8,800, a billion-dollar expansion over the last decade, 15,000 students on campus and more than 500 majors and options. The university was highlighted in an independent study presented as part of the State of the Commonwealth Report put together by Old Dominion University.
Falwell Jr. believes what he's doing lines up with what his father envisioned for the university.
"If he could see it he would say 'It's exactly what I wanted for Liberty,' but I don't think anybody, including him, believed it could ever happen as fast as it has," said Falwell Jr. "About seven or eight years ago I was looking at the financials. I think it was then that it hit me that we really could achieve the original vision for the school sooner rather than later. That's when I started planning a lot of the construction projects. I just remember being so excited. I was like a giddy teenager, this is finally coming together."
Much of the university's growth is because it invested in online education a lot earlier than other schools, seeing a big opportunity and growing to 100,000 online students.
"We created more programs. We like to say we put more product on the shelf. We created the opportunity for people to study online in a lot of different areas," said Hawkins.
"Distance learning can be very important because it reaches out and serves students who otherwise might not be able to contact higher education and Liberty not only is good at producing a higher-education courses but is very good at and very skilled at serving those students and making them feel a part of the university," said Dr. James Koch, Board of Visitors Professor of Economics who puts together the State of the Commonwealth Report.
Online education has paved the way for Liberty to put $1 billion into expanding recently and Falwell says sports is the key to bringing more recognition quickly.