An Open Letter to American Churches:The Crisis of Christian Higher Education

October 23, 2013 | 4 p.m.

Opinion | Chris Gehrz

The following piece was originally posted on the blog pietistschoolman.com the night before department cuts were announced.

To the pastors, lay leaders, members, and friends of the churches and denominations that founded and still sponsor the Christian colleges and universities of this country:

Before today is done, no small number of faculty members at the Christian college where I work will be asked to meet with administrators who will tell them that they are being let go at the end of the academic year. In no case will the professor be told that their dismissal is the result of inadequate performance. (On the contrary: our deans — all of whom I respect highly, all the more for doing their jobs in recent months amid impossible circumstances — will very likely take time to honor each professor’s many contributions as a teacher and scholar.) Rather, their loss of employment will be framed as a regrettable but necessary element of the institution’s plan to address a serious budget shortfall and ensure its long-term fiscal health. (A number of staff were already let go earlier this year; more such announcements will come before December.)

And I have no doubt that similar days loom ahead for a significant number of our peer institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, given reports like the one from Forbes magazine that graded American institutions of higher learning on their financial health: we were among the 74% of CCCU schools to receive a C or lower. By most accounts, we are among the top 10-15 Christian colleges: allowing for the possibility that that relatively high standing rested on much flimsier supports than we imagined, I fear that our situation augurs poorly for our consortium as a whole.

Of course, the loss of employment is always sad, but what makes today especially hard to bear is that there is no guarantee that it will resolve our financial problems. And so I don’t write to beg sympathy for myself and my colleagues (for the record: I wrote this letter last night so that its substance and tone wouldn’t be influenced by any decisions announced today that affect me or my closest friends and colleagues), but to draw your attention to what I fear is a crisis in Christian higher education: one in which declining revenues and rising costs will put pressure on Christian colleges (a) to engage in destructive competition with each other as they chase the same dwindling pool of students, and/or (b) to abandon their commitment to the transformational model of education known as the Christian liberal arts.

There are a number of factors contributing to the economic problems facing schools like ours. Some are specific to our model of education, or have to do with decisions made by our particular leaders; others are beyond their control and pertain to many institutions of higher education. Already weakened by the Great Recession, American higher education seems to be undergoing a rapid restructuring that has economic, political, cultural, demographic, and technological inputs. Schools that have smaller endowments (the CCCU median here is less than $8000 per student) are especially at risk: many have small student bodies to start with, and all struggle to recruit and retain enough students willing to pay/borrow the shocking amount of money it takes to do the work that earns the degrees we grant. For many years, such schools could simply raise tuition to cover spiraling costs. But, as many have argued, what students and their families are willing and able to pay seems to be reaching a ceiling.

So what can be done? Economist Robert Archibald (co-author of Why Does College Cost So Much?) frames the problem as a trilemma:

"Everyone has three objectives for higher education: lower tuition, higher quality, and less government spending on subsidies. The unfortunate truth is that we can have any two of these, but we can’t have all three. If we mandate low tuition, we have to give on one of the other two. Either the government has to increase spending on subsidies, or the quality of the education schools will be able to provide will suffer. There are no easy choices."

Now, the cuts being announced today result from a prioritization process meant to make Bethel more cost-effective, which is worthwhile… to a point. There is no easy way to reduce costs significantly when your goal is not merely professional training, but the transformation of 18-24 year olds into “whole and holy persons.” What we do rests on highly skilled, professional workers engaging in a kind of teaching that requires relatively small classes, plus expensive co-curricular programs like intercollegiate athletics and residential life.
So if we’ve reached the capacity of tuition to keep up with such expenses, we seem to be left with three options:

1. The closure of a significant number of Christian colleges. Such that there’d be significantly less competition for the same, shrinking population of potential students. And even that might only postpone some of our problems.

2. A drastic change to our model of education. We can eliminate programs that don’t enroll many majors, but several of them are absolutely foundational to the curriculum at the heart of a Christian liberal arts education. Faculty can be rendered more “productive” by doubling or tripling our class sizes, but then you’d be providing students something that cannot honestly be described as the Christian liberal arts. We can do more and more online and perhaps even save students the costs specific to a residential experience, but we would abandon the embodied relationships and community that make it possible for us to engage in anything like “whole-person” education.

3. Increase our subsidies. Our model of education needs to be subsidized to remain even remotely affordable for more than the most wealthy strata of society. Unless we are to rely even more than we already do on federal and state governments that may or may not continue to view faith-based institutions as worthy recipients of public funds, such subsidies need to come from private sources: individuals, but also churches and denominations.

Unfortunately, schools like ours have experienced a steep decline in financial support from the denominations and churches that founded and continue to sponsor them. About three-quarters of CCCU members retain some denominational connection, but a recent study found some evidence that financial support from those sponsors has fallen off sharply in the last decade — from around 5% of schools’ budgets in 2002 to 2.7% in 2011. Some CCCU schools receive much greater support from their churches; some much less — the last time we received anything close to 2.7% of our budget from our denomination was the early Nineties; it’s been far lower than that in recent years (less than half a percent the last year the denomination published an Annual).

Now, I’m grateful for the money that is given by our denomination — knowing that some colleges receive no such support, and that it results from the sacrificial giving of individuals, families, and congregations who could put that money to good use in other places.
But what is given now is but a fraction of what a smaller denomination gave not too far back in living memory. Adjusted for inflation, what the denomination gave our school in 2005 was $1.7 million less than what it gave in 1985 — which happens to be roughly the amount that needs to be cut from our College of Arts and Sciences budget, in significant part through the reductions to be announced today.
Or to frame it in another way: our denominational support in 2005 was the equivalent of $2.15 per member of the denomination; twenty years before it was $15.05 (in 2005 dollars).

When I wrote about this topic last month, one of our former administrators pointed out that we’re supported generously by several congregations whose giving does not go through the denomination. I’m sure that’s true, and am grateful for that support. (Please let me know if this describes your church — I’d love to offer a less impersonal thank you.) But it’s equally true that other congregations have done like the denomination and cut or eliminated such support.

As a church chairperson myself, I understand that budgets are tight. Even those of our congregations that have weathered the Great Recession and managed to expand our ministries have had to make hard choices, sometimes cutting back in one area to support growth in another. I’m in no position to tell any church or denomination that its priorities are out of line.

But I do know how easy it is to undervalue what Christian higher education — particularly as it is rooted in the liberal arts — accomplishes. Much of what we do pays off in the long run, and then often in hard-to-measure ways that might seem only indirectly connected to the mission of Christian churches.

So let me take a shot at persuading you — as someone who makes or votes on a church or denomination budget — of the value of what we do in Christian higher education, particularly via the liberal arts. There’s much that I want to say, but knowing that I’ve already tried your patience and eyes with this missive, I’ll limit myself to one argument:

If you want to be missional, you need to support Christian higher education.

Supporting the mission of the Body of Christ is the oldest, most enduring value of church-subsidized higher education. Indeed, the founding impetus of most CCCU members was the need to train pastors, missionaries, evangelists, church musicians, and Christian education specialists. And schools like ours still provide their sponsoring churches with such essential labor.

To be sure, much of this training happens in seminaries and divinity schools, and our seminary needs financial help as much as the college. (Its faculty are also steeling themselves to receive administrator calls today.) But I only need look to the three pastors who preach most regularly in my own church to know the value of supporting colleges that are strong in the liberal arts: our senior pastor is a former History major who is able to bring biblical context to life; on the Sundays he doesn’t preach, the pulpit is usually filled either by a former English major whose sermons are rich with poetic language or by a former Philosophy major who helps us navigate the paradox and ambiguity we encounter in some of Scripture’s harder, more opaque teachings.

But in churches where all believers are priests, called to minister using whatever gifts and talents the Spirit provides them, then it is also important to think about the ways that Christian higher education founded on the liberal arts prepares laypeople to share in the millennia-old mission of Christ’s church in our present contexts.

First, it produces graduates who have the knowledge and skills to be part of a shrinking world in which Christianity is growing much faster outside our borders than inside it. Thanks to our curriculum, for example, our graduates have proficiency in a language like Spanish, French, or Chinese and have taken multiple courses on cultures other than their own (and engaged in experiential learning across cultures). Something like three-quarters of them have spent at least some of their undergraduate education outside of this country.

Second, in an age when American churches have to recognize that the “mission field” is next door, that it’s as important to be Jesus’ witnesses in our equivalents of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria as to the “ends of the earth,” it’s impossible to overstate the value of an education that gives its graduates the knowledge and skills to live in their culture but not of it. Where I teach, general education begins with a multidisciplinary course that prompts students to study the history of Christianity’s interactions with Western culture — not to glorify the West, but to help largely middle-class Americans think critically about the values, practices and assumptions of the culture that surrounds them. That curriculum continues with courses that help students think more deeply about the role of science and technology in our society, and many other contemporary issues — and all in light of our conviction that Jesus Christ is the source of all truth. I know of no other model of education that is better suited to renew the minds of young adults who otherwise face enormous pressure (sometimes from educational institutions) to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2).

Third, a Christian college education — unlike most others — engages in transformation, not merely information. Education is often said to focus on head, heart, or hands. Most colleges and universities aspire to shape one, perhaps two of those. Some offer tremendous intellectual rigor, but are unconcerned about moral or character formation. Some do an excellent job of training graduates for important careers, but have limited intellectual scope. Christian colleges are some of the only such institutions of which I’m aware that take seriously the whole person: we cultivate the life of the mind and foster the habits of lifelong learning; we soften hearts to love God and neighbor; and we train hands to do the work of Christ in this world, in all manner of careers and callings.

My education, said one alumna I interviewed this summer, “didn’t prepare me to do any specific job, but it prepared me to be the person that I am…. Who I became [there] has everything to do with how I got a job and how I stay in it, and who I am – having fidelity to who I am in Christ…”

Of course, churches engage in formation as well as worship, evangelism, missions, outreach, and other ministries: but many will struggle to do so lacking pastoral and lay leaders who have received a holistic, Christ-centered education that teaches them who, and whose, they are.

About fifty years ago, the longest-serving, most influential president of our college and seminary wrote to the leaders of his denomination. He described our institution as “the church on mission in higher education… related to her churches as the arm is to the body. They are of the same quality. Their individual functions are specialized, to be sure, but these are essentially Christian in both instances.” Our “raison d’être,” he said, was to be an “educational instrument of Christian strategy in our world mission for Christ.”

He wrote in a time when the historic ties that bound denominations and churches to the colleges they had founded were only just beginning to fray. Now, we can no longer assume such connections, and it may be that some of the original rationale for churches to support colleges have diminished in importance, if not dissolved altogether. But this much is unchanged: Christian colleges are both an extension of the mission of the church in the realm of education, and a source of renewal and enrichment to congregations and denominations whose leaders and members we prepare for mission and ministry.

So whether you’re already working on a budget for the next calendar year, or that decision will come next spring and summer, please consider the ways in which your church and denomination can support Christian colleges: either by direct financial contributions; or indirectly, by providing scholarships that help your young people receive the education they want and need rather than the one they can afford, or the one that promises immediate worldly success.

I write not in despair, but in hope: that you will help us transfigure this moment of crisis into an moment of decision, by recommitting to a model of higher education that has served well the Body of Christ and through it the world.

Grace and peace to you all.

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