On Holistic Christian Higher Education

On Christmas Day, the Boston Globe ran a story about a Christian investment fund manager (yes, they exist) who is starting a Christian College in the city of Boston. Thanks to Bob Smietana for bringing it to my attention.

The focus of the story is on Finny Kuruvilla, who has both a medical degree and a PhD from Harvard. As a resident assistant while at Harvard, he observed the standard problems of college life both socially and academically. To his credit, he is putting $30 million of his own money to do something about it. He envisions a college that would avoid many of those issues.

Screen shot from Boston Globe. Photo by Jonathan Wiggs of the Globe staff.

The story reports describes Kuruvilla’s vision for the new Sattler College:

The new four-year school is his attempt to start from a blank slate. He said his goals are threefold: to teach a strong core of liberal arts courses, provide students with a Christian community, and keep the cost extremely low. Tuition will be $9,000 per year, about a fifth of the cost of a typical private college.

Sattler’s mission will be to “prepare students to serve Christ, the church, and the world.” That will be accomplished, the story reports, in what the founder sees as a unique academic approach:

The faculty will teach some core courses in biblical languages and religious history, but many academic courses will be taken online. Students will watch lectures through free online learning platforms such as EdX, then attend classes to discuss the material with other students and professors. Faculty, who will be named later, will also mentor the students spiritually, Kuruvilla said.

It will operate as a commuter institution, offering classes in an office building and having no college housing.

Here is my response to the story.

First, I want to be clear that I commend Dr. Kuruvilla for his passion, commitment, and philanthropy. It is very impressive to see someone move beyond the standard critique of modern higher education and actually put himself at risk to make a difference in what he sees.

But as a number of colleagues across the country have pointed out in response to the story, this is not really a new model (except for the use of the EdX courses — more on that later).

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) has a North American membership of over 150 regionally accredited institutions. According to the CCCU website, there are nearly 320 thousand students enrolled in these institutions each year which puts the number of alumni in the tens of millions. Furthermore, their stated mission is “advancing faith and intellect for the common good”. Some variation on that theme can be found by reviewing the webpages of the member institutions. The sentiments you’d find on those pages would read exactly like Sattler’s mission statement.

Christian colleges and universities do not segment the life of the mind from the essence of Christian discipleship; character formation, spiritual development, and academic rigor characterize these institutions. I have served in five such institutions and have friends serving at similar institutions across the country. While each school may pursue the balance between those three central thrusts differently, and we all have moments where are students fall short on one or more of them, it is a commitment evident in each institution.

Dr. Kuruvilla is correct that having Christian faculty who can mentor students through their transition for home of origin to the society at large is crucial. But there are others engaged in that effort as well: student life professionals, resident assistants, athletic teams, and friends in the residence hall. This is especially important for students like the young man from Ohio mentioned in the story who wants to pursue a degree but doesn’t want his faith broken by his educational journey. Character formation occurs throughout the totality of a Christian college experience.

While I have never been a fan of the phrase “the integration of faith and learning”, there is something to be valued in Christian faculty members who engage the academic material alongside their students. We think carefully about which texts are appropriate for where our students are and, more importantly, about how to walk with them as they process that information. This is not something that happens in a discussion session following a series of online videos. It is part of the daily walk alongside students as I try to model how Christian sociologists think about the world.

The model suggested appears likely to engage in more of an apologetic response. The student would watch a popular lecturer from a university across the world and then debrief with a faculty member thereafter. Given that the faculty will be drawn from fields of biblical languages and religious history, it seems probable that the discussion will center around “what did we think of that as Christians?”.

The attempt to keep costs low for students in commendable and $9,000 is an attractive price point. Two things stand out from this. First, I assume the students would need to find housing and work in Boston — certainly someone moving from Ohio to study at Sattler will face those expenses. This makes the actual costs of attending significantly higher (except for those already living in the Boston area).

Second, as with most critiques of private higher education, this model seems to miss the role of tuition discounting. At many institutions, including mine, the actual after scholarship costs of attendance run about $17,000 (room and board are extra). But the $17,000 (even for commuters) provides resources for study support, community life, career advising, counseling, intercollegiate and intramural sports, clubs, service opportunities, mission trips, and the like. These are not incidental to the mission effectiveness of a Christian university. They, along with classroom interactions with Christian faculty, are the laboratories in which that mission is accomplished. The differential costs when measured against benefits seems much more reasonable.

It is often difficult to get venture capitalists like Dr. Kuruvilla to see the value in established entities rather than start-ups. But an investment in the lives of those 320 thousand students already committed to combining academic rigor with mature Christian character in order to serve as Ambassadors to the world for Christ (as my university’s president likes to put it) would seem to pay much larger dividends over the long run.

7 thoughts on “On Holistic Christian Higher Education

  1. Professor, one editorial correction; your number of students in CCCU schools early on in your blog reads “320 million”; I believe you wanted to state “320 thousand”, as you did near the end of your blog.
    Great piece.
    Thank you.

  2. I have been involved in the beginning of several major curricular programs in several colleges and universities. The number of issues involved is so mind numbing right now that I don’t know where to start. I love the idea. Buy does this start up investment person have any idea of how to find and develop faculty that he will need? They just don’t hang on trees easy to pick. What about library resources necessary for the students? Students each come from their own cultural background and changing that or enhancing their understanding of the mission of this college is one of the hardest tasks in education. Besides, a college education -in my view – is not to make cut outs of the professor or the college president, but to help students think for themselves. Too many more issues to even write about. It will be boring to anyone who has been in a start up situation. Curriculum development is hard work, but only half the battle. To find faculty and other resources is not an easy task.

    1. Yes to all this. I was also hinting of our accreditation guidelines that require faculty to have a masters or 18 graduate credits in the subject area. But I’m guessing that regional accreditation isn’t a high priority for the start-up.

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