Reflections on Costs in Christian Higher Ed

Rarely a day goes by without some commentary about the increasing costs of higher education, especially tuition. President Obama raised the issue in the State of the Union. Newspapers and blogs abound with concerns about college costs, student debt loads, and stress on parental expenses.

There have certainly been dramatic increases in college costs, especially when seen in the aggregate. Rates of tuition increase at public institutions have been dramatic over the past two decades as states shift public support to K-12 education and to corrections. The news coverage focuses almost exclusively on percentage increases and not on actual dollar amounts (it sounds more dramatic).

The costs of Christian Higher Education have also increased over this period. But it must be remembered that the vast majority of Christian colleges fall in the bottom half of the distribution of private school tuition rates.

But the public perception of private schools is one of tremendous costs. Some years ago at a conference I met some great folks from Bennington University in Vermont. Bennington has total costs of $60,000 per year. They have fewer than 900 students, a student faculty ratio of 9 to 1, an average class size of 14,  and a six year grad rate of 65%. This creates pressures for all four year private institutions.

Institutions I’ve served have student faculty ratios above 13 to 1, had average class sizes in the upper teens, and had six year grad rates in the mid 50s. But administrators, trustees, and parents worry about how the public will respond to increasing costs.

Popular solutions to cost increases seem to focus on technology-mediated solutions. From MOOCs originating from MIT and Standford to Bill Gates suggesting that computer interaction can create mentoring opportunities, there are calls to “increase efficiencies”. John Warner of McSweeney’s had this post in Inside Higher Ed that rightly observed how this flies in the face of what we want teaching and learning to be about.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the economics of supply and demand are supposed to push instructional costs down while allowing other cost sectors to increase. In some ways it can all be seen in terms of classic supply and demand. If we see the purpose of college as only related to job creation, then how we get to the outcome is less important. (By they way, the idea that today’s students are eager to learn through technology is anecdotal and generally unsupported. They’re far more likely to learn from the ever increasing numbers of low-wage adjunct instructors.)

At the same time, as competition between colleges has increased, pressures to support retention, technology, and student life have also increased. Why do colleges need recreational facilities with climbing walls and day spas? What’s the driver for ever increasing band-width? Why do we build fancy new residence halls? Why do our chapels need to look like mega-churches? Because keeping enrollment up in a highly competitive environment requires that kind of student amenity on an ever-escalating basis. (Strangely, new academic buildings are too often seen as luxuries we want deep pocket donors to build.)

Supply and demand becomes an issue especially when Christian universities don’t challenge the national assumptions about the role of a college education. If my university’s goals are identical to those of the local community college or even Michigan State, we’re already in serious competitive trouble. There is simply no way to cut costs enough to play on the same field with publicly supported institutions.

But if we clearly state our purposes and goals, then we’re competing in a different plane. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to every degree program out there (certainly not the for-profits). It’s a matter of what one gets out of the experience provided.

There’s one more problem of supply and demand when it comes to college costs: we’re all competing for the same subset of the student population. We believe that the secret to success is to recruit the best and brightest of the high school graduates. But they are operating in a buyer’s market. They can play one school off against another and shop for the best tuition discount.

Sociologically, there are high degrees of correlation between high-school academic success and social class. Our move years ago from need based aid to merit based aid puts us at an economic disadvantage because we don’t have the resources to compete with the discounts at the elite schools.

Historically, faith-based colleges have drawn from a slightly lower socioeconomic level than is true for the Benningtons of the world (and, I believe, even the Michigan States). That is still a commendable mission. Given that the data still shows huge financial gains over a lifetime if one has a college degree, it’s hard to understand why we can’t make that message work.

As a life-long academic, I have to believe that there is competitive advantage in having the kind of academic, student life, and spiritual life experiences that allow students to see that the true costs of Christian higher education are more than worth it. While we should always be cautious about rapidly rising college costs, our conversations should be about impact, mission, and building God’s Kingdom. Otherwise, we aren’t competing at all.

Advertisements

On Building Bridges

I’m taking a break from my usual focus on Christian Universities, at least directly. This weekend I finished a paper I’m presenting Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers (ANSR) in Kansas City. I’ve been part of this organization on and off for over 30 years. The paper is a continuation of what I’ve been exploring in my book and here on the blog and builds on the conference’s diversity theme.

Specifically, I’m exploring the dynamics of the under-30 generation as they relate to life in the local church and the denomination. As I’ve argued before, I believe that this is the first postmodern generation and that raises issues for those leaders of more modern sensibilities.

The paper summarizes Putnam and Campbell’s findings from American Grace, especially the rise in Religious Nones. It then draws data from the National Survey of Youth and Religion, conducted by Christian Smith and friends. Thirdly, it links challenges raised by David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, exploring issues young evangelicals are having with the local church. (Northwest Nazarene is doing a panel presentation on You Lost Me Thursday night — watch for the coming video).

I’m playing with connecting these themes to the dominant forms of social capital sociologists like Putnam have raised over the years: the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. The former speaks of how we build groups based on similarity while the latter crosses interest group boundaries. I’ve been thinking that our focus on youth ministry and life-cycle based small groups in the church reflect an over-reliance on bonding to the neglect of bridging. I conclude by exploring some personal ideas on what bridging might look like for the contemporary church interested in relating authentically to young evangelicals. I’m still playing with these ideas, so I’ll share them here as written. I appreciate any reactions.

Here’s a list of concrete things I’ve thought we can do to balance our bonding capital and our bridging capital. The list isn’t exhaustive and you may not like all of the ideas. Some are easier to pull off than others. But I really don’t want to write another ANSR paper that analyzes a situation without beginning some programmatic “so what” ideas. I figure making myself vulnerable is a first step in what the young evangelicals are looking for.

First, move from generation specific small groups to age diverse groups. This is not an opportunity for mentoring but a focus on open exchange relationships. Second, add curricula to your study groups on the Spiritual But Not Religious Phenomenon. We have to understand the perceived irrelevance of the church if we’re to address the concerns. Third, have your church board and district leadership begin a steady diet of young evangelical blogs: I’ve just begun trying to keep up – it’s an astounding bunch of faithful Christians. Fourth, Christian colleges should develop materials on how evangelicals can operate in a world without a presumed religious preference. This means moving from apologetics to engagement. Fifth, church leaders need to go with young evangelicals to the places where they go. What kinds of movies, events, concerts, and so forth are shaping their perspectives? Sixth, denominational leaders need to publicly express what they may well know privately – the world is a complicated place. There is no room for pretend certainty in the twenty-first century. Seventh, preachers and theologians must engage the reality of God’s story as it engages the culture of today. That means challenging Moral Therapeutic Deism with Kingdom of God understandings, calling out the dangerous of overdeveloped individualism, and recognizing the priorities of the prophets as opposed to those of modern religious celebrities. 

My list could go on. But engaging only a small part of my list will help younger people move beyond a dichotomous view of faith and culture and allow older people to engage a postmodern world without fear. The result of such engagement is a stronger witness of the church – a Faithful Presence in the world as it is and not simply an idealistic hope for the world as we wish it was.

Where would Jesus go to College?

 I know, it’s a presumptuous title. But I mentioned this in an earlier post. Spring Arbor’s Concept says that we are “committed to Jesus Christ as the perpective for learning“. I’ve been trying to find concrete ways on unpacking that phrase as a means of finding the affirmative vision for Christian Higher Ed that will speak to today’s postmodern generation.

Last weekend, the New York Times ran this story about Cedarville University in Ohio. The headline reads, “A Christian College Struggles to Further Define Itself“. The story documents the departure of the president and the vice-president for student life. It describes how diversity presented a challenge on issues of politics (faculty members wrote a piece in the student paper on why they couldn’t support Romney) and sexuality (there are concerns that the student life vp was too hospitable on same-sex issues).

I want to be careful here. It’s easy at any institution to do some interviews over coffee and come up with negative responses to university decisions, especially if one isn’t an insider. But the Cedarville issues, like the ones at Shorter and others, speak to the tensions inherent in engaging an ambiguous future a changing society.

Sociologically, what we’re seeing is the leading edge of pluralism running into the traditional authority of religious institutions. These are points of extreme uncertainty and tension (to mix metaphors, imagine them as tectonic plates). But the tension can be creative as well as destructive. To put it simply, what is the stance of an exclusive institution in a world that doesn’t recognize the preferred, privileged position of religious conservatives. How do we figure out how to engage the world from a place of identity and value without pulling the wagons into a circle?

What is Jesus’ perspective on learning? How did he relate to those who were “different”? He ate with sinners, angered the religious leaders of the day, and was willing to sacrifice himself. The point was to demonstrate love, not power. He was reflecting the Father and drawing people to himself. He said that if we attempt to save our lives (institutions) we would lose them but if we attempted to lose our lives (institutions) we would save them. He called on us to deny ourselves daily — that’s not just individually but institutionally as well.

We can fight the changing society and wished we lived in some imagined simpler time (which didn’t exist back then). Or we can bear witness as Jesus did. I know I’ve drawn a lot from Peter Enns lately but he keeps writing good stuff. Yesterday, he reminded us that “the most frightening verse in the Bible” is in 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God..

It’s a tall order. But it’s the only way forward for Christian Higher Education over the long run. And it’s where Jesus would want to go to school.

The Joy of Professing

Last month I wrote that we needed to articulate an affirmative reason for Christian Higher Education instead of a defensive, separatist stance. Such an effort requires retraining our thinking from a number of perspectives. It calls for us to stand somewhat apart from the expectations of the academic disciplines. It requires us to stand in some prophetic space with regard to denominations. That’s the challenge Robert Wuthnow presented to evangelical faculty 25 years ago. He said that we have the ability to be bilingual: translating new cultural dynamics of academe to others while honoring the theological commitments and worries of the church.

I’m beginning my thinking about affirmation on what I know best: teaching. In a recent edition of Inside Higher Ed, George Fox English professor Melanie Springer Mock reflected on the joys of teaching. She titled her piece “Don’t Sweat the 4/4” and discussed how her career focus was directed towards the kind of institution that shaped her. She doesn’t talk about the unique role of Christian higher ed in explicitly evangelical terms but she does celebrate what it means to be part of a true college: a place where community can appear (even if one has to make small talk with that one guy who drives you nuts).

I shared Melanie’s piece with our administration and with a number of faculty. Why did I do that? Wouldn’t this just allow “them” to see if they could push the 4/4 to a 4/5 or a 5/5? Wouldn’t new technology, blended courses, and MOOC’s allow us to do more with less? And, some say, if we faculty are known to do this because we love it, won’t we lose all leverage?

As much as I appreciate Melanie’s piece, I think it misses the boat just a bit. It’s not about teaching loads, advising loads, credit hours generated, or returns on investments. If those are the important metrics, state universities and for-profits have long ago put us in a negative competitive position.

The real issue is impact. The reason I teach four classes a semester is because I have students multiple times over the course of their studies. I get to see their growth. I know when they’re slacking. We actually have conversations that go beyond “will this be on the exam?”

Students at universities like mine will say that they like the small size where they don’t feel like a number and people know their name. But that misses the boat, too. The strength of the Christian liberal arts institution is that they know me. Some have met Elton when he came along to pick me up after my night class. Others know of my travails at different institutions over the course of my career. We can talk about stuff. Last night I wound up in a great post-class dialogue over environmental economics with a business major in my general education capstone class. Yesterday I filled out a recommendation for one of our majors that asked me “how many times I’d met with the student outside of class“. I realized that I couldn’t answer because our interactions are too frequent.

Friday night we were blessed to have Ambassador Andrew Young on campus. It would have impressive if he’d just been with MLK or just been mayor of Atlanta or just been in Congress or just been UN Ambassador. To hear him talk of all of those was amazing. But toward the end of his Q&A, he reflected on the role faith-based institutions had played in the lives of his parents, of Young himself, and of King.

It reminded me that what we’re doing isn’t just about teaching four classes a semester. It’s about the mentoring/apprenticeship relationship with our students that someday lead to accomplishments on a par with Andrew Young’s. I dare the best MOOC class delivered to a couple of thousand students or the most innovative competency based program to pull that off!

One of the faculty members who got my Melanie Springer Mock e-mail was a new professor at SAU, Jeff Bilbro. While Jeff is as concerned as the next faculty member about teaching load, finding time to write, low pay, and being under-appreciated, he had a different read of Mock’s essay. Jeff had been Melanie’s student and considers her both mentor and friend. If Jeff is any indication of what Melanie does at Fox, it’s good stuff. It’s the only good reason to do what we do.

The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear

I’ve always said that biblical scholars have it rough because they know stuff. They know that the context of that verse we like to throw around doesn’t support what we want it to mean. They know that there are many nuances in the original language that our translations and paraphrases don’t capture. They know that there are many interesting theological, psychological, sociological, and political questions raised when we seriously examine texts.

Knowing stuff (and asking the questions that help them do that) opens them up to criticism from those who have more of an apologetic bent. The latter are quick to find fault for even asking the questions or exploring the difficult territory. The challenges of critical thinking have been on my mind over the past week as I read Peter Enns‘ blog. Pete had asked Eric Seibert, Old Testament professor at Messiah College,  to guest write three pieces dealing with violence in the Old Testament. Seibert raises some interesting challenges dealing with triumphalism, power, and Jesus. The posts were provocative but dealt carefully with the challenges that faithful believers find in the texts. I have colleagues teaching a course on the theology of war and piece and gladly shared Seibert’s blogs — not because I fully agreed but because I thought he asked fruitful questions for class discussion.

The first response I saw in the blogosphere showed up last weekend in this piece by Owen Strachan of Boyce College. Strachan asked how it was that Messiah could allow Seibert to even teach there, given that Messiah’s statement of faith includes a commitment to the authority of scripture (others have pointed out that other parts of Messiah’s statement celebrate the importance of inquiry). Friday, Christianity Today posted this piece discussing the posts by Seibert and mentioning Strachan. Strachan linked that in another post that says CT sees “controversy” while he uses a somewhat obscure passing remark by Scot McKnight as his title.

Yesterday,  Pete posted this amazing link. Apparently a commenter to the previous series had written as if he were Jesus (I’m giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t really him — the sentence structure and illogical argument do not represent The Lord well). Other commenters suggested that asking such questions would find Peter without faith somewhere in the future. I mentioned last week that Spring Arbor is committed to seeing “Jesus as the perspective for learning”. I’m certain this is NOT what it means.

Pete Enns, Eric Seibert, and I work in schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Owen Strachan teaches at a Bible College (all the BA degrees are in Bible and they have a certificate for seminary wives) affiliated with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Boyce is a very different place from Eastern or Messiah or Spring Arbor. CCCU schools run the risk of using critical thinking as a tool of faith. Many Bible colleges (but not all) prefer to deal in tight arguments explaining how things fit together.

It’s not just biblical scholars of course. Biologists have to deal with issues of evolution. Sociologists have to deal with the changing nature of the Modern Family. Nobody worries too much about the economists or the chemists or the music theorists.

When we don’t ask questions it’s because we’re afraid of what happens if we do. If we tug on that particular piece of fabric the whole garment might come unravelled. Much is lost when the fear keeps us from exploring the Truth. And, to stay with my metaphor, we wind up walking around wearing garments with threads dangling all over the place — not very attractive.

Many of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees involved matters of interpretation vs. letter of the law (“why do you heal on the sabbath?”). Thomas asks questions we would today see as blasphemous (“you expect me to believe he was raised from the dead?”). Why do we ask such questions? In order to better understand. To not ask them is to hide from difficulty. But asking opens up valuable conversations. It lets us figure out the complexity of the world and keeps faith engaged.

I don’t know if I agree with Seibert’s positions or not. But I certainly appreciate him asking the questions. As I listen to other responses and perspectives, I’m better for it. We would only act to stop his comments if we were afraid of where they’d lead. But if the disciples weren’t supposed to fear a raging storm, why would Christians fear the writings of a college professor in Pennsylvania?

To critics like Strachan, questions are problematic because they could upset the entire apple cart. Liberal Arts institutions know that the apples are only good when you take them down and eat them.

Governor McCrory, please meet Mr. Buechner

Higher Ed sources were abuzz this week when North Carolina governor Pat McCrory told Bill Bennett that he wanted to focus on education that led to jobs instead of the liberal arts. Specifically, he contrasted programs that lead to jobs with pursuing things like gender studies (which Bennett had been mocking). In the interview, McCrory suggested that “educational elites” are encouraging programs that won’t lead to jobs. This last bit paints a horrendous picture of faculty members, suggesting that we delight in our students pursuing liberal arts programs that won’t lead to jobs.

Many other people have blogged on McCrory’s remarks over the past few days. Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed (formerly Dean Dad) had one of the better autobiographical responses. Reed describes the ways in which his own liberal arts education benefitted him. He goes on to recount what data has shown for years — employers (read “job creators”) are looking for the skill sets that liberal arts provides. There really is little evidence of a decided advantage in majoring in the “get me a job” major without the breadth of experience and perspective that makes liberal arts education unique. (BTW, most accrediting agencies require that accredited institutions provide some breadth of general education programming). Others have rightly pointed out how having students aware of issues in gender studies could be of great value as we navigate the challenges of modern society (did the governor watch any news during the 2012 election cycle?).

This focus on jobs instead of preparation for the future is negatively impacting educational institutions, including and maybe especially Christian universities. We’re regularly told that parents are concerned about student loans and that we need to be prepared to share our “success stories”. I’m an idealist, but I happen to believe that all of our graduates are successes. Almost none of them wind up like Chris Farley’s character “living in a van down by the river”. Admittedly, college has gotten more expensive relative to inflation but it still reflects an amazing return on  investment. Data consistently shows that lifetime earnings for those with college degrees far exceeds those with only high school degrees. We’ve been telling our students that since they were young, so it’s no surprise that they have expectations of getting jobs when they finish their education.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA conducts an annual freshman survey, exploring attitudes toward social issues, study skills in high school, and reasons for going to college. Here is the graph on reasons for college attendance from their 2012 survey.

HERI

The chart shows the changes over the last 36 years on three reasons why students go to college. Students are asked to evaluate a variety of reasons in terms of their importance. it’s critical to recognize that these aren’t mutually exclusive categories: they could rate all reasons as very important. The data shows some significant increase in those interested in better jobs and minor increases in terms of making money and general education. What strikes me is the relative stability of these three factors from 1982 to 2006 — not only are they all important but they are still supported as “Very Important” by over 60% of college freshmen. While it does appear that the economic downturn and college debt issues have pushed the job numbers up, the general education numbers went up as well, gaining roughly 10 percentage points in less than a decade.

I got some anecdotal insights into this tension in my senior liberal arts capstone class Monday night. I had them in groups trying to explain the SAU mission statement to a high school freshman. One of the groups responsible for “the study and application of the liberal arts” explained that breadth is good because you find things out about yourself along the way and might even switch majors to something you’re passionate about. I asked about the oft-repeated meme that general education courses were boring and nobody wanted them. The student responded that sometimes that particular course didn’t work for you but did for someone else. It was a wonderful testimony to why we study a variety of fields — even gender studies!

Embracing the liberal arts is especially important at a Christian university. We live in community and interact with others whose interests differ from ours. We have to know how to navigate that reality and we learn to do that through courses, chapel, and cafeteria conversations. Along the way, we’re expecting a light to turn on, for a student to say “I know what I’m called to do”. That’s not about their job but about their life.

Frederick Buechner puts it best. In his book, Wishful Thinking, he defines vocation like this: It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. … By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

Governor McCrory (and those other job-obsessed folks like him) meet Frederick Buechner. Please.

Framing a Positive Vision for Evangelicals and Higher Education

Last weekend I drove from Michigan to Massachusetts to attend the North Shore Writers Retreat sponsored by Eastern Nazarene College. It was a great time, with presentations by Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, Alissa Wilkinson, Jonathan Merritt, Lil Copan, John Wilson, and hosted by Jonathan Fitzgerald. Some of these people I’ve followed over the years. Others were Facebook friends I’d never met in person.

There were some very good between-sessions conversations about Christian Higher Ed. We had attended such schools and/or taught at them. We all shared some similar questions about the unique challenges of the Christian university.

I came away from the last session with Jonathan Merritt reflecting on two ideas he shared. First, he said that the postmodern world is drawn to story and operates inductively where the modern world operates deductively through argument. I need to be far more attentive to the stories of my students and my colleagues to really build an image of what Christian higher education can look like in the future. Jonathan’s other point that struck home: It’s not enough to draw attention to a problem; you have to offer the compelling alternative.

On the drive home and in the midst of starting the Spring semester Thursday, I’ve been thinking of my arguments about Christian Higher Ed. What I’ve argued is that the past models aren’t sufficient and if we don’t change we run the risk of alienating a generation. But change to what? What does the non-negative vision look like?

The past few days have had me focused anew of the shortcomings of evangelical culture, and by extension, the universities that exist within that culture. On Thursday, Rachel Held Evans posted this blog titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. Drawing on language from Mark Noll’s 1995 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, she argues that there’s a real challenge with compassion when “right belief” fosters ambivalence to suffering. Friday, Peter Enns posted a blog also building on Noll’s book. Pete suggests that a problem for evangelical academics is that we can be “free” to pursue ideas as long as they don’t lead to uncomfortable conclusions. Last night I finished  The Great Evangelical Recession by John Dickerson. Dickerson makes some interesting points that have been made elsewhere but ties them together in some useful ways. He draws comparisons between the housing bubble and the exaggerated influence of evangelicalism and suggests a number of structural factors that present great risk (loss of youth, segmentation, financial strain, lack of discipleship, etc.). Today I read Ron Sider’s The Scandal of Evangelical Conscience. Sider effectively documents the statistical similarities between evangelicals and the broader culture on a range of issues like divorce, sexuality, abuse, finance, materialism, and so on.

Taking these pieces as a package, I’m left with a vision of American Evangelicalism which is 1) struggling, 2) culturally uncertain, 3) insufficiently prophetic, 4) interpersonally harsh or condemning, and 5) often very afraid. If these diagnoses are even half on track, this suggests some hard days ahead for traditional evangelical institutions.

So what’s the positive alternative? It’s fine to suggest “don’t be those bad things” but that doesn’t provide us much to go with.  Dickerson calls for a return to biblical authority and a focus on discipling. Sider (like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others) suggests we need a better understanding of how Jesus was initiating a Kingdom and not simply providing a way to get to heaven.

There is something about Kingdom language that can be of value to Christian higher education. I’ll unpack some of these thoughts in future posts. For now, let me suggest that the key is to see the Christian university as a place where the Kingdom is in operation. This doesn’t occur in separation from the larger culture as it did in past times. It occurs because we embrace the theological significance of Jesus’ model of sacrificial love, of challenging pharisaicalism, of reaching out to the powerless, and of building a community that takes Paul’s body metaphors seriously. Toward the end of his book, Sider writes, “Indeed, the church ought to be not just different but far ahead of the rest of society.” That’s something I’m continuing to ponder about the Christian University.

Jonathan Fitzgerald, who did such a fine job organizing the Writer’s Retreat, just published an e-book titled Not Your Mothers Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. I really think his idea of the New Sincerity has power. It’s something for us to consider in Christian higher education. We need to present the world as sufficiently complex, to investigate our past positions without abandoning our faith commitments, and above all to tell the truth.

Spring Arbor’s Concept contains the phrase “total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning“. I’m coming to realize that this phrase is far more complicated than “What Would Jesus Do?”.  It’s not just affirming a Christian identity. It’s really seeing about seeing the Kingdom that Jesus saw. The more we can learn to  do that, the stronger our educational perspective will be.