By Doug Gibson
There was a time when attending a Christian college was a good deal. When my father attended in the 1950s, the cost of a Bible college education was only slightly higher than that of the local community or state college. I wonder if those days are gone forever.
Today’s students pay $10,000 to $20,000 a year for a Christian college education. Admittedly, everything is more expensive than it used to be and the expectations of today’s students in the areas of technology add to the expense, but that is not the primary issue driving student expenses to these heights. The primary issue is the failure of our churches to adequately support our colleges financially.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
As late as the 1980s, when I was a Bible college student, local church financial support covered 50 percent or more of the operating expenses at many Bible colleges. Now that number is closer to 15 percent.
This landscape of support began to radically change in the 1990s. Historically most of our churches had a mission budget that included cross-cultural missions, Bible colleges, and Christian service camps. The 1990s saw a huge expansion of interest in the area of world missions among our churches.
Initially most missions committees attempted to increase overall giving to world missions by increasing the church’s missions budget, but when this failed to generate as much money as desired, a second approach was adopted. It was argued that Christian service camps and Bible colleges aren’t really “missions”—that they are more education and leadership training oriented than outreach oriented. Therefore they shouldn’t be funded from the missions budget.
The result of this thinking is that thousands of churches across America have either capped their giving to Christian colleges at 1990s levels or have dropped their support altogether in order to increase funding for cross-cultural missions. Other churches have elected to support their own “Timothys” by offering them scholarships, but they choose not to support the general fund of the colleges.
Not all churches have done this, but the overall effect is that local church support for Bible colleges has remained flat for the last 15 years, while expenses have skyrocketed. The result is predictable: Colleges have been forced to rely more heavily on tuitions and other educational fees in order to make ends meet.
My point isn’t to argue against supporting cross-cultural missions (of course we should). But as anyone who manages a household budget can tell you, when you “rob Peter to pay Paul,” the long-term consequences are often not what was intended. It has been close to two decades since this trend started, and the effects with regard to missionary and Christian college support are becoming more apparent.
Ozark Christian College surveys each prospective freshman who expresses a real interest in attending Ozark, but who, for whatever reason, fails to enroll. Ozark has discovered several reasons for this. Some students choose to attend a different Christian college, others decide to delay college, and some enter the military. In the fall of 2007, nearly 100 high school seniors chose not to attend Ozark, electing specifically to attend a local junior college or state university instead. For many of them this decision boiled down to finances.
Consider the implications of that last paragraph and broaden it to include all Bible and Christian colleges. If every Christian college has just 30 students who opt not to attend based solely on finances, then nationally every year that means more than 1,000 high school graduates are foregoing a Christ-centered education. These are students who have been challenged for Christian service and desire ministry training, but who do not pursue that calling because they cannot afford the price of the training.
Think what those students potentially represent. There could be hundreds of future missionaries, hundreds of ministers, and hundreds of better-trained volunteer leaders and teachers represented within that group. Every year those who don’t attend because of financial reasons represent potentially dozens of new missionary teams, a new church plant in every state of the union, in addition to hundreds of more traditional ministers to meet the growing needs of our established churches.
Unfortunately, their potential is an empty promise, because they never attend a Christian college to receive the leadership training they desire and need. For strictly financial reasons, they choose a different career path because the thought of $50,000 in student loans is more than they can handle.
Consequently, our Christian colleges are struggling, not for a lack of potential students, but for a lack of students who can afford the price of admission. Some colleges have closed their doors; others have reduced faculty. A few have reduced or eliminated their emphasis on training ministers and instead train students in other secular vocations. All have raised their fees.
INVESTING IN LEADERS
We hear a lot about the vital importance of good leadership and the need for leadership training in our churches today. When will we decide to invest heavily in our leadership training institutions? Nearly every church with a job opening lists “a degree from a Bible or Christian college” as a requirement for an incoming minister. When will we invest in the institutions that provide that education? Every missions committee wants to support a missionary who is adequately trained to share the gospel. When will we adequately support those colleges that provide that training?
It is too much to expect a bunch of 18-year-olds and their parents to continue to bear the brunt of the cost of educating and training our next generation of leaders, missionaries, and ministers. However, until our churches reengage in the leadership training partnership between themselves and our colleges, those 18-year-olds will have to shoulder that burden.
How long can this situation last? What will happen to our leadership-training schools? Where will our leaders, missionaries, and ministers receive their training if these schools fail for lack of funds?
Doug Gibson is a minister at New Braunfels (Texas) Christian Church and former professor at Ozark Christian College, Joplin Missouri.