How to Kill Fundamentalist Higher Education

[UPDATE: thanks for letting me know about the bad link. It’s fixed now.]

Want to kill uber-conservative evangelical Protestant colleges and universities? The recipe is simple: Have a lot more news stories like this one from Milwaukee.

Schmidt young earth timeline

Schmidt preaches the young-earth gospel…

Outsiders like me might not get it at first. We might think that fundamentalist colleges are happy to live in a little bubble, utterly protected from trends in the wider world. And, to some degree, they are. But when it comes right down to the hard facts, even the most conservative evangelical institutions care what people think about them. They have to. If colleges want to attract students and their tuition dollars, they have to prove that students’ college experiences will help them professionally. Colleges have to be able to assert that they are more than an educational punchline.

As I found out in the research for my recent book about the history of fundamentalist higher education, even the staunchest fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College yearn for mainstream respect.

Even though they traditionally eschewed accreditation, fundamentalist universities and colleges promised that their educations were not only theologically and culturally pure, but also good preparation for professional careers. Bob Jones University liked to assert that its students’ GRE scores were higher than similar schools. Founder Bob Jones Sr. often claimed that his school would do more than protect students’ faith—it would prepare them to be faith-filled doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers.

His decision to avoid accreditation, Senior often noted, was not due to lack of campus resources. Rather, it was only a measure of BJU’s spiritual superiority. As founder Bob Jones Sr. bragged in 1950,

Bob Jones University is probably the only one in America that could join an association that does not join, and we refuse to join. We believe . . . that a Christian institution should make its own policies in line with the purposes it has in view and that no association of any kind should dictate the administrative policies of the institution.

For most institutions of higher education, though, accreditation has always represented a crucial mark of respectability. Schools that could not afford to earn accreditation have always risked losing students to accredited schools.

It makes sense. Why would a student spend tuition dollars at a university when those classes would not be recognized by other institutions? Why would students attend an undergraduate college when their degree wouldn’t qualify them to enter any graduate schools?

As a recent story from my adopted hometown of Milwaukee demonstrates, evangelical colleges risk losing credibility if they aren’t accredited. Here’s what happened: The current acting sheriff, Richard Schmidt, often brags about his advanced degrees. He has one PhD, he likes to say, and he is working on a second. His election signs tout him as “Dr.” Smith.

So what’s the problem? Unfortunately for Schmidt, his degrees are only from unaccredited evangelical colleges. He earned his undergraduate degree from Hyles-Anderson College. His doctorate comes from the defunct Northland International University.

The Milwaukee report skewers this sort of higher education mercilessly. Not only are both schools unaccredited, but they split their classes and majors by gender. The more serious topics of Bible study, for example, are considered to be for men. Women can focus on challenging courses such as “secretarial procedures,” “crock-pot cooking,” and “The Christian Wife.”

hyles anderson women program

Sorry, I can’t go out tonight. I’ve got my big final in Crock-Pot tomorrow…

This embarrassingly shoddy college poses a career risk for Acting Sheriff Schmidt. For our purposes, the bigger threat is to fundamentalist higher education itself. If conservative evangelical students and families see that unaccredited colleges are the butt of jokes, they just won’t attend. And if degrees from these schools prove a hindrance to professional success—as they are for Sheriff Schmidt—students will take their tuition dollars elsewhere.

In the end, if you want to kill off fundamentalist higher education, all you have to do is laugh at it.

Thanks to N(M)S for the tip.

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.

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.