Why Are Evangelical Colleges Struggling? Don’t Forget These Two Things

Kudos to Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra at The Gospel Coalition for peeling apart the complicated causes for declining enrollments at evangelical colleges and universities. She goes beyond the obvious, yet her article still leaves out two important factors, two unique trends in evangelical higher ed that were already becoming evident during the twentieth century.

fundamentalist U cover

How did we end up here…?

As Zylstra writes, all colleges these days are charging higher tuition than they had in the past. Moreover, there are more students than ever attending higher education. Seems as if these should be boom times for all universities, but they are not. Revenues are down, enrollments are threatened, and administrators are facing difficult cost-cutting choices. Just ask Alaska.

What gives? As Zylstra notes, we shouldn’t be fooled by high tuition rates. In practice, colleges have to discount that rate for most of their students, and evangelical colleges might be getting only about 50% of their sticker price. Plus, competition with public universities has become even more intense, with many publics adopting the aggressive recruitment models of private schools. Finally, to keep up, evangelical colleges have had to pony up for new kinds of campus accoutrements that families have come to expect, such as high-end dining, climbing walls, and more.

As Zylstra relates,

“It’s an arms race,” [one administrator] said. “We all had to do what we needed to compete.” Colleges upgraded their technology and built new dorms, classrooms, and gyms. . . . “Now we hit a price point, and a lot of parents won’t pay.”. . .  schools are bringing in less money due to discounted tuition while at the same time spending more on upgrades.

In addition to these important reminders, evangelical colleges in particular have their own unique strengths and challenges. First, the good news for evangelical higher ed: These days, small colleges and universities are all struggling to come up with something that evangelical institutions have gobs of. Namely, a niche. In Wisconsin, for example, the hapless Stevens Point campus tried to recreate itself as a “professions” campus, focusing on teaching and health care. It didn’t work.

For a century already, evangelical colleges and universities have had their niche. In this case, conservative evangelical colleges can claim to do something that state schools and secular private schools don’t—they guarantee the faithfulness of their faculty and they promise to shape students’ faith in their own tradition. For a lot of college-shoppers, that’s huge.

But it comes at a big cost. Ever since the 1950s, as I uncovered in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical institutions faced a unique sort of intra-evangelical competition. Biola looked anxiously at the success of Azusa Pacific. Wheaton fretted about the successes of Bob Jones. And Bob Jones got nervous about the growth of Liberty.

For evangelical parents and families, the marketplace of evangelical institutions gives them a choice, and that choice tends to push schools to become more and more conservative. From Bryan College to Cedarville, all across the country, evangelical colleges are tightening down on their political and religious distinctives. Why? Because if they want to enjoy the enrollment boosts that come with their religious niche, they need to offer something truly different than mainstream schools. They need to sell themselves to students and families as something other than a public university with mandatory chapel attendance. So they tend to squeeze students and faculty members with more and more conservative requirements.

Does it spell doom for evangelical higher ed? Not at all. But as a perspicacious alumna of Westmont College recently noted in these pages,

The crisis of higher education is felt across the board, and evangelical colleges are no different. At Westmont, enrollment has been down significantly in recent years, making the role of donors even more prominent. By now I recognize that all colleges and universities are beholden to donors to some extent, but Christian colleges especially are due to their generally smaller size and “niche market.” . . . How will these trends impact Christian higher education? I believe there’s already a significant rift between progressive members of Christian colleges (including mostly faculty and some students) and conservative members (donors, administrations, and some other students). If the conservative element continues to control the purse strings, the progressive element will feel increasingly alienated, perhaps contributing to an even greater decline in enrollment.

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