Wal-Mart and the Death of College

Don’t be fooled. Just because the rumors of Sweet Briar College’s death have been greatly exaggerated, don’t think that small colleges have any reason to be optimistic. And for small conservative religious colleges, there is an even more difficult problem. They need to perform an impossible feat—get more religious and less religious at the same time.

Adorable but unaffordable?

Adorable but unaffordable?

As I’m arguing in my current book, fundamentalist and evangelical colleges and universities have always faced all the same challenges of mainline schools, plus many unique ones. The situation today is exactly the same. Conservative religious colleges face the same sorts of Wal-Mart-style challenges of scale, plus the additional constraints of remaining true to religious orthodoxy.

Though its affluent alumni seem to have saved Sweet Briar College, small evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have been winking out like dead fireflies lately. The reasons are clear. Just as the Wal-Martification of retail stores has made Mom-and-Pop stores impossible, so have the twentieth century’s slow academic revolutions made small colleges impossible. Many of them just don’t seem to know it yet.

What happened at Sweet Briar? The numbers just didn’t add up. Writing in the pages of Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quoted a gloomy financial report:

A report last month by Moody’s Investors Service said, “In Sweet Briar’s case, challenges included small scale, which, combined with weakening demand, declining pricing flexibility and an insufficient endowment, led to an unsustainable business model.” Some of the very qualities that make alumnae so loyal also make it hard to balance the books, Moody’s said. “Sweet Briar’s model of providing highly personalized education with small class sizes is expensive, as indicated by educational expenses per student of approximately $42,000,” said the report. “Although this cost structure is commensurate with the other rated women’s schools, standing at the median, colleges either need greater pricing flexibility, larger endowments or more gift revenue to sustain the model.”

Small colleges are trapped in a terrible pickle. To survive, they have to achieve a certain minimum size. Otherwise, they can’t afford to offer all the programs and services that students these days expect from a college. But they can’t achieve that minimum size if they keep their prices high. Students will go elsewhere if they are charged the full sticker-price. If schools lower prices, however, they will also die.

In Sweet Briar’s case, activist alumni pledged to raise 12.5 million dollars to keep the school running. That’s a lot of moolah. And no school—not even one with wealthy and involved alumni—can expect to survive only on the good wishes of its past students.

For conservative evangelical schools, the outlook is even more gloomy. In order to attract students, they must continue to demonstrate beyond question their religious orthodoxy. In some cases, such as the controversies lately at Bryan College, Mid-America Nazarene, and Northwest Nazarene, this will mean clamping down on faculty who seem to be moving in a liberal direction. At the same time, however, in order to attract students, they need to widen their pool of potential students. That means offering more programs and more courses. It also means opening up to students from different religious backgrounds. After all, if tuition dollars are getting harder to find, it will get harder and harder to turn paying students away.

Some fundamentalist schools are thriving in this difficult environment, at least for now. Most prominently, Liberty University in Virginia is raking in the dough. By making itself into a leader in online education, Liberty has managed to grow at a breakneck pace in the past decade.

Raking in mountains of dough...

Raking in mountains of dough…

As its online offerings increase, however, Liberty has to somehow demonstrate that it has not watered down its strict religious requirements. Those requirements, after all, are the school’s primary raison d’etre. Even as it pumps money into its football team and its all-year faux snowboard hill, Liberty’s leaders need to watch out for the creeping liberalism that tends to accompany higher-ed growth.

I’m happy for those folks who love Sweet Briar College. But their impressive display of life-support should not give comfort to other college leaders. The fundamental financial situation has not changed. Small colleges have to remain small to maintain their traditional style of teaching, but they have to grow in order to be financially solvent.

Small evangelical colleges face those same impossible challenges, plus some unique ones. They have to remain orthodox in order to keep their niche, yet they have to broaden their appeal in order to survive at all.

I’m glad I’m not in charge of one of those schools.

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3 Comments

  1. How do you define “orthodoxy” in this context? How do these schools? It makes a big difference if they have a brittle and reactive environment of unquestionable orthodoxies as opposed to one where there is a confidence and range of tolerance for critical inquiry or perspectives that may trouble some people.

    Reply
    • That’s the $64,000 question, all right. The schools I’m researching are from the tradition of interdenominational fundamentalism that started among Baptists, Presbyterian, and other denominations of the Reformed tradition in the 1920s. All of them have fussed over just what “orthodoxy” means, depending on the decade. These days, it seems to me some of them are being pushed to cling, for example, to a stricter young-earth creationist orthodoxy than they might. Bryan is a prime example of this, with its recent revision of its statement of faith. Why change the statement? Maybe I just don’t understand the dynamics, but from my perspective it looks like a typical case of a small-college administrator working to ensure continuing student enrollment.

      Reply
      • They would be far from the first to have an administrator do that. What they’re going to end up with in the near future is a few younger generations who are completely disconnected and maybe alienated from the official institutional articulation of “orthodoxy.” When the old money dies off and trustees change they will not have received a living tradition they know and love. It will be a dead shell they will be forced but ill-equipped to change. I can’t think of a better recipe for “secularization.”

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