21st-Century Challenges to Biblical Higher Education
Our colleges face the same 21st-century issues as the rest of higher education: rising costs, changing demographics, the impact of technology, the effect of globalization, and, especially for us, a question of whether what we do provides value relative to expense or need.
The history of our institutions makes these challenges even more acute, since from their origins they have been independent of one another, which hinders any unified response to these 21st-century challenges.
I want to address five issues that we must consider if our schools are to remain healthy and effective.
1. Show Me the Money!
We must face the hard facts of the economics of education today. “College Tuition Is Out of Control,” screamed a headline in the October 27, 2011, Washington Post. Since 1978 college costs have risen considerably faster than inflation, and even much faster than medical costs. Our Christian colleges are not immune to this challenge.
Higher education has become big business for the colleges related to the Christian churches and churches of Christ sharing data with Christian Standard this year. Last year, 26 of these “traditional” institutions that operate in North America had income totaling $210,402,658 and collectively spent $202,683,029 to educate 11,014 students—an average expenditure of $18,403 per student. The total accumulated income for the past five years was $946,715,863, and the total expenditure for the same period was $939,503,851. That means it’s almost a $1 billion industry over a five-year period!
Yet, some of our schools face severe financial challenges. Ten schools had annual deficits last year totaling $2,938,694. Eight of the 10 schools facing deficits had fewer than 500 students. Fifteen of 26 schools had deficits for two or more years over the last five years. The accumulated deficit during that time totaled $31,088,399. The disparity among these schools in expenditure per student is dramatic. The average student expenditure for five years was $19,431, but it ranged from a high of $56,374 per student to a low of $8,191.
I do not imply that smaller schools are unworthy, or that the financially distressed and the less expensive schools provide inadequate and substandard education. I pray for and agonize with our sister campuses that work hard and faithfully and yet face such consuming problems. I know most of the presidents of our institutions and many of the faculty and staff. They are a dedicated lot who want to prepare men and women who will help extend the kingdom of God among all nations. But, they have inherited a system that is financially inefficient. We have not faced as a movement the impact of economics and size on higher education. If we started out with a clean slate today, we most likely would not establish 29 small schools (even our largest schools are small by national standards). Rather, we would establish a handful close to centers of populations of our churches or other strategic locations.
Of course, we must work with what we have. Frankly, I don’t have a comprehensive solution to this problem. One small step, though, could be to form alliances among schools to avoid duplication of services and programs, and thus realize significant savings.
One example of collaboration is the establishment of the Center for Global Studies by eight of these institutions that have graduate programs (Cincinnati, Emmanuel, Hope, Kentucky, Lincoln, Milligan, Johnson, and TCM International). The CGS makes possible a regionally accredited PhD in leadership studies that is comparatively inexpensive and that targets faculty and administrators of international Christian universities, colleges, and seminaries. No one institution could accomplish this project alone. We need to find other ways to collaborate for the sake of mission and to achieve an economy of scale.
2. Who Are Our Students?
Changing demographics also presents a challenge to our colleges. Chris Davis, provost-elect at Johnson University, points out that only 16 percent of those attending college are “traditional” undergraduates, 18-22 years old, attending full-time as residential students.1 The growth of adult students, many of whom are second-career people, also challenges how we respond with education programs and services. “The fastest-growing demographic group in the next decade will be those ages 25-44. . . . They have the greatest potential for growth, and they are willing to pay . . . for convenience and support.”2 Yet, many of our campuses are focused mostly on the traditional-age student and have not geared up to meet the expectations or needs of the nontraditional group.
On a typical urban high school campus in south Florida, where my wife, Janis, taught, one might hear Spanish, Creole, Farsi, Norwegian, Italian, German, Yiddish, and more. In contrast, the student body on our campuses has been a sea of white faces for much of our history, reflecting largely the makeup of our congregations. But ethnic minorities populate many of our congregations in numbers not known before. Yet integrating these minority students into campus life not attuned to them presents a significant challenge.
Several of our schools are reaching out to the minority populations around them, especially African-American congregations related to various denominations. I know one African-American, a former pastor of the largest Missionary Baptist church in the city, who sent his entire staff to Cincinnati Christian University because, he said, Professor Jack Cottrell formed his theology. We should all follow this example of CCU.
3. Learn by Logging-on
Technology has affected the delivery capabilities of education in substantive ways, putting more emphasis on the student as learner and the faculty as mentors and coaches. The “old” lecture methodology, while not completely passé, no longer dominates among younger faculty nor resonates with today’s students.
Online education proliferates. Students will take 60 percent of their courses online by 2020.3 A recent study indicated that no substantial difference exists among face-to-face, online, and hybrid delivery systems.4
Furthermore, technology extends our reach around the world in ways not known before. The Center for Global Studies, for example, offers the PhD degree entirely online, and almost anyone in the world can access it via the Internet. Greater collaboration using a common technology base could enhance mission and maximize financial resources.
4. It’s a Small, Small World
We must recognize the far-reaching impact globalization has on our mission. The world is smaller than ever. In 1904 the main building burned at Johnson University (then known as the School of the Evangelists). President Ashley Johnson was in Columbus, Indiana, when he learned of the fire, and started home as quickly as possible. As I was sitting in a plane from Shanghai, China, to Chicago, it occurred to me that I could get home from China as quickly as Johnson could from Indiana in 1904.
How does this new environment impact how we see our mission? Furthermore, more doors are open now for the gospel than at any time in several generations. Many institutions are being welcomed to China to work in education at many levels. We can access closed or, more properly, “creative access” countries throughout the Islamic world in ways not possible in years past. Globalization creates open doors and requires a different approach to education focusing on strategic vocations that allow access to those places where traditional missionaries cannot go.
5. What Is Our Mission?
These four issues lead to the most important issue of all. We who lead our colleges must discover anew a mission that meets the needs of the kingdom of God and of our congregations in the same way that the mission of the colleges did in the last century.
Little doubt existed about the value delivered in our early history. Each institution was formed to meet one or more perceived needs: to evangelize and plant new congregations, to produce preachers for leaderless congregations, and to provide alternatives to liberal theology in older institutions. Congregations and church leaders recognized the primacy of these purposes. Though struggling through much of their history, the colleges ultimately had the respect and support of many within our constituency.
The environment in this regard has changed significantly in the 21st century. Several of these functions filled by the early colleges have now been taken by other agencies. Church planting efforts include such groups as Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship, New Thing Network, Stadia, Orchard Group, Restoration House Ministries, Ignite, Envision, Florida Church Planters, and Smoky Mountain Men’s Fellowship. Many megachurches do not look to our colleges to find leadership for their congregations; instead, they prefer their own internal training programs. Even small- and medium-sized congregations often receive a score or more applications when they are searching for a preaching minister. Quite a contrast to generations ago when many
congregations had only half-time or quarter-time ministers and depended on local Bible colleges for leadership.
We must reframe our mission to this new environment without losing the original purpose to take the gospel to the world. Organizations by their nature resist change, and colleges particularly resist it. Furthermore, our DNA has programmed us to be alert for the “slippery slope,” going the way of several of our early colleges that abandoned their original mission. Any change in what we do and how we do it raises red flags for many of us. Yet, that fear cannot immobilize us to the challenges of the present.
The solution to this renewed mission lies within the institutions themselves. The governing boards and administrations of our institutions must demonstrate our relevance to the kingdom of God every bit as compelling as our predecessors did a generation ago. We need to listen to the needs of congregations and parachurch agencies and respond where possible. But we must do what congregations and parachurch organizations cannot do—prepare students for varied vocations that fit them, not only to work in congregational ministries, but also to take the gospel to places not open to traditional missionaries.
The Great Commission compels us with a disquieting urgency. We have not seen such open doors to the gospel in generations. We have the corporate means to respond in significant ways to these opportunities. Whether we have the will to respond remains to be seen.
1Christopher Davis, “Summary of Trends in Higher Education,” Johnson University, April 2010, 3. Davis produced this 5,500-word analysis of contemporary trends and challenges for in-house planning and assessment.
3Martin Van Der Werf and Grant Sabatier, The College of 2020, Chronicle Research Services, June 2009, 5; available at www.collegeof2020-digital.com/collegeof2020/students/#pg1.
4Barbara Means, Yukie Toyoma, et al., Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, September 2010, 38, 39; available at www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf.
Gary Weedman serves as president at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee.