Catalyst Bible College students sat in a dimly lit chapel and listened to Pastor Mike Merrill's "Unshackled" series. Students then headed to the classroom, where they were instructed on organizational leadership.
The cohort of students laughed and talked about their day as they passed through the campus.
For the next four years, these students will grow and learn together. Eventually, they will be handed their bachelor’s degree and sent out into the world.
It's a typical college experience with a few key differences.
The four-year college is powered by Vanguard University of Southern California but is located at Visalia First church. At Catalyst, students can earn their bachelor's degree at a fraction of the cost.
“Catalyst Bible College exists to continue giving to this community, world, helping students graduate as close to debt-free as possible,” Merrill said. “At CBC, everyone majors in changing the world.”
After a pilot year, classes started on Aug. 28 to roughly 50 in-person and online students.
The catalyst to affordable higher education
The Assemblies of God church is facing a shortage, with many church leaders searching for a solution.
Before his appointment to Visalia First lead pastor, Merrill was the Georgia Network Superintendent for the Assemblies of God.
As superintendent, Merrill oversaw 220 churches and roughly 700 ministers. The steady decline in qualified ministers was at the forefront of his mind.
"I became painfully aware we had a major ministry pipeline problem," Merrill said. "... numbers had been diminishing greatly over the past 30 years. We're now to a point where we have more churches than qualified people to pastor them."
The Southern California Superintendent for the Assemblies of God contacted Merrill about the declining numbers of pastors. Rich Guerra had previously served as Visalia First lead pastor and was familiar with the Central Valley.
In Merrill's view, the church faced two problems: the pastorship is one of the least-paying jobs in America, and the cost of a four-year degree at a private Christian college topped $220,000.
"Most families can't touch that, so they are accumulating major financial debt," Merrill said.
It was out of this dilemma that Catalyst Bible College was born.
"We are a unicorn in the sense that we are aggressively looking for donors around the country," Merrill said. "We are going to work toward a $25 to $30 million endowment to safely invest those funds."
Within a year, Merrill and his team secured a partner in Vanguard University and renovated a section of the Visalia First campus to meet Catalyst students’ needs.
In addition to graduating debt-free alums, Merrill has a lofty goal of admitting 500 Catalyst students in five years.
An 'unmatched' tuition
The total estimated cost for a California resident to live on campus and attend a UC is roughly $42,000 a year, according to University of California Admissions. However, the total cost can vary depending on the student and their campus.
The yearly cost of admission and on-campus housing for an out-of-state student is nearly double—$76,400.
The average student loan debt is $37,338 per borrower. Private student loan debt averages $54,921 per borrower, according to Education Data Initiative.
"This is a crisis I've pondered for the last 10 to 15 years," CBC Provost Jason Kennedy said. "The church needs to address it, too."
Catalyst Bible College boosts “unmatched” tuition of $34,000 for four years and a goal to graduate all students as “debt free as possible,” college administration stated.
The college accepts California grants and federal loans and offers a variety of scholarship opportunities for students. The average Catalyst student will graduate receiving $10,000 in scholarships, according to college administrators.
“Upon graduation, students’ degrees will be issued by Vanguard University, providing our Valley students a high-quality education at an attainable price,” Kennedy said.
Vanguard is a private, Christian, comprehensive university of liberal arts and professional studies. The Assemblies of God University, located in Costa Mesa, California, is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
Vanguard offers significantly discounted credits to Catalyst Bible College and allows Catalyst students to attend some online classes taught by Vanguard professors.
What programs are offered at Catalyst?
Students don't have to study theology to attend Catalyst.
CBC offers degrees in early childhood, psychology in human development, theology in ministry and leadership, management, and business administration.
Regardless of the degree a student pursues, every student can participate in a “Lifestyle of Learning” initiative. Students are invited to cohorts, conferences, and special lectures that create an "atmosphere for students to grow and develop in their callings," college officials stated.
All on-campus students must attend one chapel service weekly and sign up for a small group in their ministry area. Chapel services are devotional and have guest speakers.
Students also work alongside Visalia First ministry leaders to develop leadership skills, a strong network of peers, and a deep knowledge of the Bible.
A 10-day mission trip is offered annually, allowing students to serve communities in different countries. Students are also given a trip to the Holy Land at the end of their four-year program.
The Catalyst community
After graduating from El Diamante High School, Hannah Clark attended Vanguard. She never expected to attend any college other than Vanguard.
But when Clarke heard about Catalyst Bible College, she decided to take a leap of faith and apply at the newly established school.
"I was really excited about the opportunity to move back to the Central Valley," Clark said. "God was telling me 'Hannah, I think it's your time to come back home.' I did not expect that."
Clark is majoring in early childhood development with an emphasis in special education. She is also one of six students living at Catalyst's student housing.
Student housing is available to students enrolled at the college.
CBC can house full-time students just minutes away from the Visalia campus. Students have a locked-in payment of $400/month, including rent, utilities, and house furniture. Students have one to two roommates when they live in student housing, according to college administrators.
Students living an hour outside campus receive priority placement in student housing.
Catalyst students are encouraged to interact with their peers and mentors outside the classroom.
Students can participate in monthly community-building activities such as bowling, laser tag, a movie, or a “family dinner.” Every semester, students participate in a leadership retreat with top leaders. Retreats can differ from academic to relationship building.
"I love the community," Clark said. "That's the thing about Catalyst, the community. We all have class together, and we have chapel once a week, which is amazing."
Want to become a part of the Catalyst community?
To learn more about Catalyst Bible College, you can attend the grand opening at 10 a.m. Sept. 27 at Visalia First, 3737 S. Akers St.
On Oct. 19, Catalyst Bible College will host the Pinnacle Conference. The conference's goal is to "offer today’s rising leaders an opportunity to receive transformative insights from nationally recognized leaders, pastors, CEOs, and non-profit directors," according to the college's website.
Speakers from around the country will provide a day full of teaching, sharing, and investment. Speakers include Shannon Bream, Marcus Buckingham, Vanessa Van Edwards, and Mark Merrill.
Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the college. Tickets are still available.
This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: New Visalia college wants its students to earn a debt-free degree