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Christian Colleges Face Uncertain Future and Existential Threats

Headaches. Nausea. Difficulty breathing. Racing heartbeats. 

These and other symptoms afflict leaders of America’s Christian colleges as they struggle against an unprecedented assault on all their institutions’ survival that’s captured in headlines like these: 

  • New York Times:After Coronavirus, Colleges Worry: Will Students Come Back?”
  • USA Today:Small colleges were already on the brink. Now, coronavirus threatens their existence.”
  • Inside Higher Ed:Frozen SearchesScores of institutions announce faculty hiring freezes in response to the coronavirus.”
  • CNN:Universities begin considering the possibility of canceling in-person classes until 2021.”

“Higher education is COVID-19-positive,” reported CNN. “And in the parlance of triage, the patient needs emergent care.”

“This whole situation is going to be very costly,” said Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College near Chicago. “This is going to be extremely challenging.”

Cascading Crises 

We now know the coronavirus may have caused deaths as early as late last year.  But the milestone date for the outbreak in this country was Feb. 29, when the first deaths in the state of Washington made national news.  Educational leaders immediately went into emergency-management mode, making a series of difficult and financially debilitating decisions.

  • Spring semester: Acampuses across the country closed one-by-one during March, refunds began for students’ tuition, campus housing, meals, and/or fees. Cash flowed out as expenses for cleaning and closing campuses spiked. 
  • Canceled events: On-campus events (sporting events, graduations, concerts, etc.), were canceled, erasing revenue for schools and their surrounding communities. Ditto campus bookstores. 
  • Online ed: Big Christian colleges, such as Liberty and Grand Canyon, made the switch with little difficulty.  They already had significant on-line operations.  Other schools that focus on face-to-face learning had no online options before coronavirus hit, and some have paid dearly to ramp up quickly. For example, Hope College in Holland, Mich., which rated #1 for “Best Campus Traditions,” by Best Colleges in 2019, had no online classes before the virus. 
  • Economic meltdown: As the economic impact of the virus worsened, so did the fortunes of the wealthy donors many schools rely on. Ditto the endowment funds, for those schools that have them. And while private schools are eligible for the $14 billion in aid to higher education provided by Congress’s CARES act, leaders agree this won’t be enough to offset losses. 
  • Recruiting: Campuses closed during the height of the all-important spring recruiting season for next fall’s freshman class. Instead of campus visits, recruiters now use Zoom calls, but admit they don’t know when their campuses will reopen, leading some prospective students to opt for a “gap” year of no schooling. 
  • Delayed deposits: May 1 is the date colleges typically require initial deposits from fall students, but many have pushed that date back to June 1. One trade group predicted a 15 percent drop in nationwide enrollment, which would amount to a revenue loss of $23 billion. 
  • Summer: Most colleges have hemorrhaged further revenue by canceling summer school classes. Many have also lost important revenue streams generated by renting their facilities to outside groups during the summer months for sports camps, youth retreats, etc. For example, Summit Ministries uses Covenant College in Georgia.  Impact 360 uses Berry College in Georgia.  TeenPact uses Lee College in Tennessee for its annual national gathering.  The status of all of these summer programs is so far unclear. 
  • Fall: Some colleges are considering canceling all face to face classes until January 2021.
  • 2021 and beyond. Schools big and small face difficult personnel decisions. Some of the wealthiest schools have already instituted hiring, wage, or building freezes for next year. Duke University canceled all new hires for all of 2021, and Yale’s cancelation goes through next June. Meanwhile, some schools are ramping up their online educational offerings. Bethel University in Indiana is hiring a director of digital learning. 

In mid-March, Moody’s Investment Service downgraded the higher education sector of the economy from stable to negativeMoody’s analysis said nearly a third of America’s public and private universities were already operating at a deficit. 

The crisis threatens the survival of some weaker institutions, and even those that survive will emerge weaker as they struggle with destructive ripple effects for years. 

“The current epidemic is hurting all American colleges and universities but, like the disease itself, it will be fatal only to some,” said an opinion piece from Inside Higher Ed, which projected that dozens to possibly 100 colleges might close their doors this year. 

Southern Nazarene University of Oklahoma said the pain is being felt by many. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created financial challenges for students, families, and for SNU.”

Shirley V. Hoogstra is the president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. She declined to say whether the coronavirus crisis would force some of CCCU’s 150+ US member schools to close, but she did provide MinistryWatch with this statement: 

“COVID-19 is certainly changing the landscape of higher education. There is still much unknown about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on higher education. Realistically, institutions are preparing for a decline in enrollment for the 20-21 academic year and beyond. Our institutions are reporting significant financial losses. Campuses will need additional stimulus money to help make up for these incredible financial losses. Many small institutions did not receive funds under the Paycheck Protection Plan, which means that they are having to cover substantial salary and benefit expenses while navigating a number of unknown factors related to the upcoming fall semester. It is our hope that the federal government will prioritize resources to offer financial assistance to colleges and universities so that they can continue to employ people, adapt to the changing landscape, and provide quality education to all students.

“A crisis of this magnitude creates monumental challenges, but also provides Christian leaders the opportunity to pivot and adapt. Now, more than ever, we need higher education leaders who can respond to a new generation of financially insecure students; collaborate with other higher education institutions in new ways; continue to understand what specific vocations need to be supported through higher education and how to best serve students; and champion increased racial & ethnic diversity on our campuses in the midst of widening inequalities.” 

An Existential Crisis?

As shocking as the coronavirus has been, it’s no surprise that some Christian colleges were already struggling long ago. 

Forbes magazine highlighted these struggles in a Nov. 2019 article, “Dawn Of The Dead: For Hundreds Of The Nation’s Private Colleges, It’s Merge Or Perish.”

Forbes assessed the strength and weakness of 933 American private colleges, grading them on a scale from A+ to D. It gave Cs and Ds to 675 of the schools, most of which are “tuition-dependent,” meaning “they squeak by year-after-year, often losing money or eating into their dwindling endowments.” 

Dozens of Christian colleges earned D grades from Forbes, including: 

  • Anderson University, Indiana 
  • Judson University, Illinois 
  • Southwestern Christian University, Oklahoma 
  • Evangel University, Missouri 
  • Olivet Nazarene University, Illinois 
  • Southern Nazarene University of Oklahoma 
  • Azusa Pacific University, California 
  • Eastern University, Pennsylvania 
  • Spring Arbor University, Michigan 
  • Central Baptist College, Arkansas 
  • Eastern Nazarene College, Massachusetts 
  • Northwest Christian University, Oregon 
  • Trinity Christian College, Illinois 

As Ministry Watch reported two weeks ago, Hope International University of Fullerton, Calif. announced plans to close Nebraska Christian College—a money-losing school with 85 students that it acquired in a 2016 merger—at the end of the current semester. 

Also within the past month, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary announced it would no longer offer doctoral degrees in biblical archeology because the degrees are “incongruent with our mission to maximize resources in the training of pastors and other ministers of the gospel for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Coronavirus restrictions have limited archeological digs this year.

Cincinnati Christian University announced it was closing its academic programs last fall. The school will become an extension site for Central Christian College of the Bible in Missouri.

It’s possible – even likely — that the current crisis will be a turning point in a long struggle colleges have had against demographic trends.  Demographers see a shrinking number of high schoolers on the horizon.  It is likely that many colleges would be closing in the next decade even without the coronavirus crisis.  Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.  The Great Recession drove a significant drop in the U.S. birthrate 

Nathan Grawe popularized the term “birth dearth” in his 2017 book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.” He believes the number of students graduating from high school in New England will be 24 percent lower in 2029 than it was in 2012. 

So a day of reckoning is coming not just for Christian colleges, but for higher education generally.  With the coronavirus, that day will just be coming sooner than expected. 

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.