Can Jesus Make a Profit?

It’s true—there are lots of topics that I had to leave out of my new book about evangelical higher education. Among the most difficult choices was the decision to focus tightly on one group of interdenominational evangelical schools that had its roots in the 1920s fundamentalist movement. Lots of important and interesting evangelical colleges got (mostly) left out of the story: Oral Roberts University, Regent University (VA), and Patrick Henry College, to name a few.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

A recent call from a journalist has me yearning to have been able to include one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic stories in the history of evangelical higher education—the tangled tale of Grand Canyon University.

Like a lot of evangelical schools, Grand Canyon University started out as humbler Grand Canyon College, an institution catering to local Southern Baptists. With such a small draw, the school had trouble keeping the lights on. In an effort to attract more students, it adopted an interdenominational evangelical posture. So far, so ho hum. All evangelical colleges—well, almost all—could tell similar tales in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—tales of dwindling enrollments and desperate attempts to lure more students.

What makes GCU so interesting is its radical 21st-century attempt to rewrite the Christian college playbook. In order to stay afloat, in 2004 GCU converted into a for-profit institution. There’s nothing new about for-profit higher education. As my friend and colleague A.J. Angulo has argued so powerfully, the for-profit sector has a long and often shameful history.

What IS unusual is an evangelical college hoping to join the for-profit club. To be sure, plenty of evangelical colleges make money. Most famously, Liberty University made gagillions of dollars in online education in the past dozen years. But that money isn’t a profit for shareholders; it is plowed back into campus resources, including the newly respectable Liberty football team.

diploma mills

Tsk, tsk. Not a club I’d think Christian colleges would want to join…

If recent news is any indication, there are good reasons why evangelical colleges don’t try to make a profit. In Phoenix, GCU has recently agreed to buy back its right to be a non-profit school. It won’t be cheap. The school plans to spend almost a billion dollars (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) to buy back its stock.

Some of the benefits are concrete. As a non-profit institution, GCU will once again be eligible to accept tax-deductible donations. It will be able to participate in NCAA sports and compete for research grants. As all colleges must do to survive, these trappings will allow GCU to look like a “real” college.

The quest to maintain status as a “real” college has always animated evangelical schools. They have fretted that their doctrinal peculiarities and severe campus rules would cause higher-ed outsiders to look down their noses at them as mere “church colleges.”

So GCU’s desire to reclaim its non-profit status makes perfect sense in the longer story of evangelical higher education. This morning I’ve got a different question. All evangelical colleges want to have sports, research, and the other trappings of “real” colleges. But they’ve also insisted on their status as “real” Christian institutions, though they have never been able to agree on a precise definition of that term.

So here’s the question: How could GCU have ever moved into the for-profit world? Could an evangelical college ever hope for respect if it made a profit off of its students? Wouldn’t that undermine its claims to being a truly Christian institution?

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  1. “Wouldn’t that undermine its claims to being a truly Christian institution?”

    Not necessarily. Lots of Christian-owned companies make money off of fellow Christians by providing products or services that they need or want, not to mention Christian artists of various sorts who sell their works to churches or to individual Christians. Why shouldn’t Christians want to sell to other Christians, and why shouldn’t Christians want to patronize businesses owned by fellow Christians?

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