Solving The Christian Higher Education Crisis
Editor’s Note: Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be.
Regular MinistryWatch readers know that Christian colleges and universities are in a state of crisis.
Just this week we reported that Harding School of Theology, the only freestanding seminary among the Churches of Christ denomination, is shutting down its Memphis campus and moving to Harding University’s main campus in Searcy, Ark. Fall 2022 enrollment as just 110, and a separate campus was unsustainable.
In the past few months we’ve reported on the closures or de-accreditation of The King’s College, Alderson Broaddus University, and Alliance University. The industry publication Higher Ed Dive reports that 96 colleges and universities (not all of them Christian schools) have either shut down or been absorbed by other organizations since 2016. That’s more than one per month. There’s every reason to believe this trend will continue, and possibly accelerate.
The reasons for this crisis are many, and they are hitting secular schools, too. Technology is playing a role. Online programs have proliferated. Demographics is playing a large role. We are, to put it bluntly, having fewer kids today than in generations past. The cost of higher education is beyond the reach of most middle-class families today. That means many of them are incurring massive student loan debt. Students and their families are wisely starting to question the value of a $200-thousand diploma that prepares the graduate for a job paying $30,000 a year.
That said, Christian higher education is a strategic institution for the church. Christian colleges and seminaries are where we train the future leaders of the church. True discipleship and faith formation take place there. The cost, quality, and availability of Christian higher education is a Great Commission activity.
That’s a key reason MinistryWatch has, for the past four years, included Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries in our MinistryWatch 1000 database. It’s also why we publish an annual list of the 50 largest Christian colleges and universities in the nation. This year’s list published today, and you can find it here.
The crisis in higher education is reflected in this year’s list. In years past, the list has been fairly static, but this year we saw significant movement. Samford University (7) and Abilene Christian University (9) both entered the Top 10 for the first time. Moody Bible Institute (11) was the biggest mover on the list, jumping 24 spots. Colleges with significant drops in their rankings include Seattle Pacific University. It fell from 16 to 29, likely because of turmoil there related to LGBTQ issues. Harding University (mentioned above), fell from 29 to 36.
For the second year in a row, Grand Canyon University held the top spot, but Liberty University closed the gap between these two Goliaths. The annual revenue for both of these institutions top $1.5 billion. Both schools have tens of thousands of on-campus students, and a hundred thousand more online.
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Liberty and Grand Canyon are outliers in the world of Christian higher education. The vast majority of Christian colleges have revenue of less than $100 million, and most of them are less than $50 million. Some have just a few hundred students. A slight downturn in the economy, or the loss of even a few dozen students to other higher ed options, can be enormously disruptive to these smaller schools.
So is there a solution to the crisis facing Christian higher education? Perhaps. The recently formed International Association for Christian Education (IACE) is a group committed to bringing together “educational institutions and organizations in the evangelical tradition.” Led by David Dockery, the elder statesman of Christian higher education in this country, IACE seeks to encourage “the emergence and vital kingdom importance of Christian education” and “calls for Christian educators in every global region and at all educational levels to affirm and unite around their mutual commitments to Christ-centeredness and confessional solidarity.”
That’s kind of a mouthful, but the bottom line is that IACE affirms the unique value of true Christ-centered education to the Christian church. Christian education is not an incidental part of the church and the disciple-making process. It is essential.
That brings us to the true cause of the current crisis in Christian higher ed, and that is that the vast majority of Christian parents don’t get that hard reality. Their kids go off to secular schools, not to Christian schools, and many of them come home for Thanksgiving break of their freshman year with their faith wrecked. Many Christian parents think that when a kid turns 18 and heads off to college, they’re done – at least done with ensuring their children get religious instruction. They’re not.
Christian colleges are, of course, not blameless. Christian colleges can cost two or three times the state school nearby. If you are going to charge that kind of money, you had better have not merely a world-class educational product. You should also be world-class in communicating what makes you different to prospective students and their parents.
Until that happens, the crisis in Christian higher education will continue.