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.