Thinking about Christian Higher Education: Part One –Looking Backwards

Pictured here is Burke Administration building at Olivet Nazarene University, where I began my career in 1981. My office was between the second and third floor, the top half of the left-hand window above the portico. This May I retire from Spring Arbor University, marking the end of a varied career.

I am happy with what I have done over the past 39 years as teacher and administrator and the small impacts I have had, not least of which was impact on students, hiring some outstanding faculty members, and standing alongside numbers of both groups who needed support.

And yet there are many things that trouble me as I look back over my career in Christian Higher Education. As a Spring Arbor colleague of similar age shared with me recently, he and I may have begun our careers in something of a “golden age” of Christian Higher Education. There was great promise in the early 80s, but much has happened over the intervening years which has dramatically changed the character of the Christian University.

The role of faculty has undergone a significant change over the four decades. Even without returning to the long-past visions of the college president as dean of the faculty, there was a sense that we were all working together toward the institutional mission. As business organizations became a default model for colleges, the faculty role was diminished. There was a sense, partially deserved, that faculty stood in the way of innovation because they wanted to protect their own positions and favorite courses. Yet as trustees were increasingly drawn from the public sector (because they could help with donations and reputation), the faculty were increasingly seen as employees who should simply be happy just to have their positions. Especially as institutions came to rely more and more on adjunct faculty, the privilege of having a job at all was something to be appreciated. It’s not that faculty members wanted to run the institution, but they did want to have input regarding the place where they had invested their future. In many cases, they may have had expertise that could have been valuable to the cabinet, but any inputs were seen as interference with those cabinet officers who “got paid the big bucks.”

As college administration went through the business model transition, a sort of “shared misery” developed. When cuts were made at one institution, it was used as the model for many more in the region. The more administrators argued that “everyone is going through the same challenges”, the less they thought about alternative approaches or the impacts those challenges presented to faculty, staff, and students. We were told that the environment for Christian Higher Education had changed dramatically and we needed to accept the adjustments necessary.

Draconian steps to eliminate majors at one institution became a model for the institution down the road. In part, this was a response to an increased focus on efficiencies that examined data on ‘program production” that hadn’t been part of the equation in the past. In my early years, it was easily recognized that academic programs varied in their cost effectiveness (chemistry and instrumental music are expensive, sociology isn’t) but we were all contributing to overall institutional success without seeing our individual programs as competitors in a zero-sum game. Once we focused on program metrics, that shared sense of mission was eroded. It was rare, indeed, to hear administrators brag about the legacy programs that had shaped so many students over generations when they could extol the virtues of the new money-maker.

The rationale for getting a Christian college education shifted in response to the economic challenges of the Great Recession. Parents and grandparents may have once relied on home equity to support a student’s education. With the housing crash, that equity either evaporated or fears of the future inhibited the ability to use it in ways that had worked in the past. Student loans became the way of covering the gap between ability to pay and the increased costs of higher education. Even with tuition discounting, the inflationary pressures of higher education (especially as incorrectly reported by mass media) became ever more challenging. In response to this and other pressures, Christian colleges sought to place a higher value on job preparation. The public perception that a Christian liberal arts education was a luxury, meant that schools responded by emphasizing access to a first job. Employable skills, while never lacking before, became a primary marketing position.

Another impact of the changing economy can be seen in the diversification of program offerings at Christian colleges. Degree completion or graduate programs were added to offset the instability of the undergraduate market. Yet these programs operated in contrary ways. When the economic outlook was great, traditional enrollment benefited and non-traditional enrollment went down. When the economic outlook was challenging, the opposite occurred. But institutions needed to figure out ways of controlling this uncertainty along with predictions on auxiliary enterprises. The risk of revenue shortfalls actually increased with the diversification of program channels.

The never-ending chase for new markets encouraged institutions to focus on the “big winners”. Programs were designed to meet niche markets, often with the assistance of a third-party vendor who could connect potential students to the new program. Those programs assumed a never-ending growth cycle which proved remarkably vulnerable to market fluctuations. While the big-winner markets had the potential to shore up challenging revenue situations, they feel like a ticking time-bomb because the market bubble could pop at any moment. Unfortunately, too many institutions respond to this instability but searching for more big-winner markets.

Increased competition for students and market wariness on behalf of families caused additional pressures. Applicant pools were smaller than in the past and the expectation that applications would lead to enrollment became more uncertain as families deposited at multiple institutions, often waiting to commit until they saw who had the best financial aid package.

Stories about the growth in student loan debt further complicate the market situation. Even though a detailed analysis of the college debt situation shows that the bulk of the increase over the last two decades has been disproportionately impacted by professional degrees, graduate degrees, and for-profit institutions, the general social consciousness became more risk averse. Evangelical financial planners arguing that Christian should avoid debt in all forms only exacerbated an already troubling context.

Relatedly, denominational loyalty to particular schools disappeared. Where once students had grown up planning to go to their denomination’s school, that became an option among many. As increasing shares of the evangelical population became non-denominational or go to churches who don’t advertise denominational connections, the impetus to favor “your school” over others diminished.

The decline in denominational loyalty was offset by an increase in regional focus and a growth in intercollegiate athletics. For the former, data suggests that a post-9/11 world expects students to stay closer to home than was true in the past. A college might be selected for convenience as opposed to institutional mission or denominational orientation. As an aid to enrollment, many Christian colleges diversified their athletic programs and expanded the rosters of existing teams. Athletes are vital members of the college community but their loyalty to their teammates may far exceed their commitment to the institution. It’s where they got to continue playing the sport they love for another four years. Of course, those students come with scholarship and travel expenses which make their contribution to net revenue smaller than the student body in general.

Important changes were also happening among the student market as a whole. It is easily demonstrated that the percentage of young people who claim to be evangelicals, long the preferred market for Christian colleges, was shrinking drastically. This increased the competitive spiral as the regionally based Christian schools attempted to go after this smaller share of the overall market. Those that were interested in Christian colleges were far more diverse than was true in prior decades. For every group of students who was pushing envelopes and wanting their institution to engage broader cultural issues like LGBTQ inclusion or criminal justice reform, another group of students saw any movement away from conservative principles as an abandonment of core values. This latter group was known to publish underground newsletters and push for sanctions against “the liberals”. This asymmetry (which is mirrored in our religious and political spheres) creates a set of pressures that encourages the administration to clamp down while simultaneously driving the progressive group away from the institution – if not literally, at least in terms of their long-term commitments. Meanwhile, even careful dialogue on these issues in often seen by the conservatives as abandonment of orthodoxy.

For all these and many other reasons, the next several years will likely prove pivotal for Christian Higher Education. I’ll explore those implications in Part Two.

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