The Handwriting on the Wall for Christian Colleges

It doesn’t look good.

For small colleges of any sort, the future looks grim. A new report from Moody’s (the investor service, not the Bible institute) offers some scary predictions about the iffy future of small schools. For conservative evangelical colleges, however, this looming financial crisis also represents a uniquely religious crisis. Will small evangelical colleges be able to resist the growing pressure to become more radical in their orthodoxy?

Look out, Daniel!

Look out, Danny!

Inside Higher Education describes the sobering financial outlook. In the next few years, college closings will likely triple. Why? Fewer students means fewer tuition dollars, which means fewer scholarship dollars, which means fewer students. Rinse and repeat.

Among conservative evangelical schools, we’ve already seen the trend. Former evangelical schools such as Northland University, Tennessee Temple, and Clearwater Christian have all closed their doors. In some cases, the “Wal-Marts” of Christian colleges have emerged even stronger. Cedarville University, for example, has offered to accept all students from Clearwater Christian. As with non-evangelical schools, the big will likely get bigger and the small will get gone.

For small evangelical colleges, this presents a double pickle. In desperate need of more students, schools will likely become extra-timid about offending conservative parents and pundits. As I’ve argued before, young-earth impresarios such as Ken Ham already exert outsize influence on college curricula. If Ham publicly denounces a college—which he likes to do—you can bet young-earth creationist parents might listen.

We’ve seen it happen at Bryan College. Rumors of evolution-friendly professors caused administrators to crack down. Any whiff of evolutionary heterodoxy, and schools might scare away potential creationist students.

At other evangelical colleges, too, as we’ve already seen in schools such as Mid-America Nazarene or Northwest Nazarene, administrators desperate for tuition dollars will be tempted to insist on a more rigidly orthodox reputation.

Things aren’t looking good for small colleges in general. But conservative evangelical schools face this special burden. In order to attract the largest possible number of students in their niche, they might have to emphasize more firmly the things that make them stand out from public schools. In the case of conservative evangelical schools, that distinctive element has always been orthodoxy.

In the past, well-known schools such as Bryan College might have relied on their long history as staunchly conservative institutions. They might have assumed that conservative evangelical parents would trust their orthodoxy, based on their long-held reputation as a bastion of conservative evangelical education. These days, no-holds-barred competition for students will mean that every school must guard its image far more aggressively.

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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.

Can Fundamentalist Colleges Survive?

We might be on the cusp of another academic revolution. Over the centuries, what people have expected out of college has changed time and time again. Every time it changes, schools have to adapt or die. With the announced closure of Clearwater Christian College, we see another small conservative evangelical liberal-arts college bite the dust. This seems to be more than just bad management or weak organization.  It looks like yet another shift in what people mean when they say “college.” Can small, private liberal-arts schools keep up?

Going the way of the dodo?

Going the way of the dodo?

Clearwater’s students aren’t the only conservative evangelicals scrambling to find a new home. Tennessee Temple also recently announced its closure. Northland has shut its doors. And outside the bounds of fundamentalist higher education, Sweet Briar College in Virginia caused a fuss when it announced its demise, even with a plump $85 million endowment.

Colleges have always opened and closed and these recent happenings might not mark a trend. But it seems likely that the stern financial logic of mainstream higher education is also compelling at conservative religious schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed thinks that small liberal arts colleges in rural areas face an existential threat. Students just don’t want to live thirty miles from a Starbucks. They want to go to schools that prepare them for specific careers such as business, health care, or education. The idea of sequestering oneself for four years to contemplate the big ideas in extended bucolic adolescence seems less and less attractive to young people.

Higher education as a whole is not under siege. Some institutions, after all, are thriving. My beloved Binghamton University sees ever-increasing student applications. We can’t build dorms fast enough. In the realm of fundamentalist colleges, too, big enterprises such as Liberty University and Cedarville University are gobbling up students and dollars by the millions.

Historian Roger Geiger’s terrific new book gives us a big-picture perspective on these seismic changes. The higher-education system as we know it is not very old. Only by about 1940 did the system we know come to dominate. Before that time, a slew of higher-ed institutions competed for students and dollars. “Technical institutes,” “normal schools,” “academies,” “female institutes,” and a mess of other schools attracted students. Between the 1890s (ish) and the 1940s, these institutions offered students an array of educational services. In general, they did not insist on completion of high school as an entrance requirement. Some of them did not offer bachelor’s degrees, but rather some sort of training, perhaps accompanied by a certificate of some sort.

By the end of World War II, however, our modern higher-ed system had jelled into place. Schools that did not adapt simply closed down. Students no longer wanted to attend an “institute” that did not offer a bachelor’s degree. Schools that still offered high-school-level work were not seen as real colleges.

That revolution took place in fits and starts over fifty years. Perhaps the wave of school closings we see today reflects the culmination of another fifty-year revolution. Beginning in the 1960s—the decade, not incidentally, in which Tennessee Temple, Northland, and Clearwater were all founded—many traditional notions of “college” began to break down. The idea that a school would serve an authoritative role in dictating students’ educational and lifestyle experiences experienced a thumping defeat. Students themselves came to expect a greater role in running their own educations and their own personal lives.

The idea of college came to tilt more in the direction of student-directed career preparation and away from the notion of a moral and personal formation imposed by authoritative deans and professors. Of course, as Professor Geiger points out, both things have always been part of higher education, but the balance has often shifted. Starting in the 1960s, the college ideal has begun to shift away from one that would favor a small, controlled, rural setting. Instead, in order to be a successful college, schools had to provide a dizzying array of possible professional training and they had to do so in a bustling environment.

Again, it is not that colleges haven’t always offered professional training, but rather that the primary goal of a lot of students and their families seems to have been shifting over the past fifty years. Not enough people still want to pay for college as an incubatory experience. Schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple that started as the educational vision of a specific charismatic religious leader can no longer attract a critical mass of students. Young people and their families just aren’t as interested in imbibing one particular formative idea; they want a buffet of career-training and personality-forming possibilities.