Mark Pettus earned a history degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he played football, and early on in his career, he taught at an elementary school. Being president of a college was one of the furthest things from his mind.
But two things happened while Pettus was at UAB. He met his wife-to-be, Jill, who played soccer for the Blazers, and the two started attending Church of the Highlands.
Pettus became youth pastor at Church of the Highlands in 2006, and in 2011, at age 30, he became president of Highlands College, the Bible college founded that year by the church.
“It was a dream come true for me,” he says. “I grew up in a home full of educators. Both my parents were teachers. I had that DNA from them already, so I was able to fulfill what I had from them and also have the ministry aspect.”
A decade later, Highlands College, with a mission to train students for ministry, is making strides. In January, students will move into a new space, currently undergoing a $50 million renovation. And thanks to a $20 million gift from Hobby Lobby owner David Green and his family, a new residence hall will open in January 2023.
“It’s definitely a big time for us,” Pettus says.
In 2016, Church of the Highlands bought the Cahaba Grand Conference Center, part of the old HealthSouth headquarters off of U.S. 280. Early last year they bought more property nearby. Though it’s connected to the church, Highlands College is a separate 501(c)(3) entity.
“There definitely is an intimate relationship, but we are distinct organizations,” Pettus says. Chris Hodges, senior pastor at Church of the Highlands, is chancellor of the college.
Highlands College will eventually inhabit 70 acres on the property, something that Pettus says was planned but maybe not as quickly as it happened.
“We really have had a clear vision of what we want to do, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the timeline,” he says. “We’ve had 10-year goals that we’ve accomplished in five years, both in our enrollment and fundraising efforts.”
Pettus describes Highlands College as a “first-of-its-kind ministry training academy.
“We’re modeled more after West Point Academy or other military academies than typical Bible colleges,” he says. “We train young men and women for vocational ministry and we’re doing that with a holistic model.”
Pettus says his college adapted the military academies’ four-pillar approach of academics, military, athletics and character. At Highlands College, those pillars are academics, ministry training, spiritual development and character development. Students are trained in eight practicums: worship leadership, students (youth groups and college ministry), technical arts, pastoral leadership, outreach, family ministry, creative and conference and events.
Highlands is nearing the end of a seven-year accreditation process through the Association for Biblical Higher Education. Initial accreditation is expected in the fall of 2023, and that’s when Highlands will start teaching its first degree, a bachelor’s degree. Right now, course credit at Highlands goes toward an associate degree from Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida.
Pettus says that placement is a “huge focus, perhaps the primary focus” of Highlands College.
“We want you to learn everything you can here and develop so you can be sent out for the calling and purpose that God has in your life,” he says. “We have relationships with over 15,000 churches, and they are constantly looking to grow their teams. There are more job openings than we have graduates.”
All students at Highlands College will get the same non-denominational training, and some students will go on to seminary in their specific denomination, Pettus says.
“We do our best to facilitate what happens here for whatever their next step is,” he says.
Highlands College has 500 students in its traditional program and another 500 in its evening classes for working adults. Students pay tuition, but Pettus says a long-term goal is to eradicate that.
“I want to be really clear,” he says. “Our vision is to provide an environment that’s tuition-free so that there’s an endowment for all of our students. We want to grow to 1,000 students over the next 10 years, and our dream is that it will be fully endowed and that students will come tuition-free.”
The other dream is that half of those traditional students — all freshmen and sophomores — will live on campus. Two identical residence halls are planned, and the Green gift will fully fund the first.
The Greens have no direct connection to the church or college, and the donation was a surprise, Pettus says. It’s part of the school’s Eternal Impact Campaign, which has drawn donations from more than 10,000 people.
“It would be an understatement to say we were excited,” Pettus says of the Green gift. “It was an incredibly generous gift. It really validates that where we’re headed is important. We’re excited when others get excited about it.”
Green says he and his family are “honored to be a part of what is happening at Highlands College.”
“We have received nothing but great news from several ministries we are working with about the college,” he says. “Chris Hodges and the college leaders have the same heart as our family, and that is to share the good news of God’s love to as many people as possible.”
That’s definitely what Pettus and his team are trying to do at Highlands College. The college calls its classrooms “learning studios,” and students get practical training in those studios, some of which have stages, lights and sound systems.
“Our students begin creating a digital resume starting from Day 1,” Pettus says. “When they graduate, they’ve already had 400 hours of real-world experience. That’s one of our biggest differentiators.”
The student body at Highlands College is 45% male, 55% female and is “extremely diverse” when it comes to ethnicity and spirituality, Pettus says.
“They’re a great group,” he says. “They come in Day 1 really focused and motivated about what they want to do.”
A master plan for the college’s 70 acres has some growth planned, including a recreation center, gymnasium and some sports fields. (Intramural sports at Highlands College help in character development, Pettus says).
But Pettus doesn’t see enrollment growing too far beyond the 1,000 they’re planning on.
“We want their experience here to be high-quality and highly focused,” he says.
That may or may not include his own children. He and Jill have four boys, ages 6 to 13, and the jury is still out on whether or not they’ll follow in dad’s football or mom’s soccer footsteps.
“As a dad, I want them to do the thing they’re made to do,” Pettus says. “And I want to be the biggest fan of that.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Art Meripol is a freelance contributor. Both are based in Birmingham.