By Tom Tanner
Consider these three numbers: 184 million; 14,075; 33.
Is this some kind of new DaVinci code? No. These are figures that factor into any conversation about the state of Christian higher education among Christian churches and churches of Christ.
Based on data from this year’s annual college report (see chart on pp. 16, 17), these churches support 33 different schools scattered from Alberta to Atlanta, and beyond the Atlantic to Austria. Collectively these 33 schools last year enrolled 14,075 students and spent just over $184 million. What do these numbers mean? Are they good numbers or bad? Do they demonstrate wise stewardship or poor management? What is our movement receiving in return for its investment? If you are asking these kinds of questions of our schools, you are not alone. Across our continent and throughout our culture, constituents are increasingly asking hard questions of higher education.
One of the more controversial reports to raise hard questions about higher education is the Spellings Report. Its full title is A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education—A Report of the Commission Appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Four years ago Secretary Spellings, herself a mother of a college student, asked 19 key thinkers—leaders in education and administration, business and politics, philosophy and philanthropy—to review the state of higher education and report their findings. Eighteen of the 19 (one refused to sign the final report, a testimony to its controversy) issued their report in the fall of 2006.
The report has raised something of a firestorm in educational circles. In fact, a quick Google search of “Spellings Report” produces more than 10 million hits for this 76-page government document!
What’s all the fuss? What did they find? A summary of this report1 could be categorized under three headings: accessibility, affordability, and accountability. My intent is not to review the Spellings Report, but rather to raise these same three issues about Christian higher education in our fellowship. To what extent are our schools accessible, affordable, and accountable?
Some 17.7 million students attend college in this country. By comparison, the 13,300 students attending the 33 schools listed in Christian Standard’s annual report seems insignificantly small.2 Yet, only 20 years ago, when these figures were first reported, we had barely half that total number of students. Numerically, we have nearly doubled our “access” in terms of students enrolled.
But accessibility is measured by more than mere numbers. How and where learning occurs is even more important. On that front, these schools earn more than a passing grade. While one of the often-bemoaned “banes of our brotherhood” is the proliferation of our schools, these schools certainly provide ready geographic access. In an era when three out of four students attend college in their home state, these schools cover nearly half the states.
They are in metropolises of more than 1 million and in small towns of fewer than 500. Though it is tempting to mentally cluster them in the Midwest or South, nearly half are west of the Mississippi and another half are north of the Mason-Dixon Line, including two in Canada. No Christian in this country is more than a day’s drive or a few hours’ plane ride from any of these schools.
The sole exception is in central Europe, where TCMI Institute enrolls more than 750 students from more than a dozen countries and ethnic groups. It is the largest and most diverse evangelical seminary on the continent.
These schools are readily accessible to any and to many—to full-time residential students, part-time commuter students, and online learners who need never leave home. They have daytime offerings, after-dark offerings, and distance offerings, including a fourth of them with degree completion programs for working adults. Access is alive and well among these schools.
Related to accessibility is the issue of affordability, because one cannot access what one cannot afford. In pure dollars, these schools are pure bargains. Last year private college students paid an annual average of $23,712 in tuition and fees.3 By comparison, the average annual tuition and fees for these 33 schools was just over $9,000—nearly two thirds less. And three of these schools have “tuition paid” plans, making them even more affordable.
Another test of affordability is how much students owe when they graduate. The average educational debt last year among all private college students was nearly $22,000.4 Our schools don’t publish that information, but it is clearly much less. My own school, Lincoln Christian College and Seminary, for example, charges in the upper half of what these charge, but our average graduate leaves with barely $10,000 in debt (comparable to a used car loan), and half our graduates leave with no debt at all.
The difference is the amount of financial aid these schools provide to help make college and seminary affordable. Many schools, like mine, also offer multiple opportunities for students to work while in school to help pay for their education. Such “service learning” not only increases these schools’ affordability but also enhances their educational quality.
How does one measure accountability? The Spellings Report asks the question this way: Are students really learning? Parents and the public (and our churches) have a right to ask: Does all this education lead to actual learning?
In the past the standard was measured by inputs: How many faculty with doctorates? How many books in the library? Today, the measuring rod is different: Did they learn anything?
Perhaps the most meaningful measure is to look at a school’s graduates. “By their fruit you shall know them” applies to these 33 not-for-profits as much as to true and false prophets.
I would not presume to be able to evaluate the nearly 2,900 graduates of these schools last year, but those who serve in and support these schools should—at least for their own school. By sheer numbers, 2,900 graduates every year is a significant number of “harvesters,” roughly one potential leader (paid or volunteer) for every two churches in our fellowship. Supporters should be asking and schools should be reporting the extent to which their graduates are involved in God’s global “harvest” in light of that school’s mission.
Accountability begins by holding a school to its mission. While these schools have much in common, beginning with a common commitment to our Restoration plea, each has its own mission and its own story to tell about how it accomplishes that mission. These schools range from traditional Bible colleges and Christian liberal arts institutions to graduate seminaries and online providers. They offer majors ranging from preaching and teaching, to music and medicine, from business administration to bivocational missions.
One size does not fit all, and one accountability measure does not measure all. We need to get to know these schools’ missions and hold them accountable to those missions—all in the context of our Restoration plea and its commitment to unity and biblical authority in pursuit of God’s Great Commission.
The Spellings Report concludes with a “call [to] the American public to join in our commitment to improving the postsecondary institutions on which so much of our future—as individuals and a nation—relies.” I would conclude with a similar call to our movement and to our members to become involved in our Christian colleges, because in a human sense, much of our future may well rely on how well we prepare a new generation of leaders for this movement.
I would not presume to assume that these schools are the only way to prepare leaders, but I do know they are a significant means to the end to which God calls all of us—“to make disciples of all nations.”
1The complete report can be found at www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/pre-pub-report.pdf.
2The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (www.cccu.org) has collected data that highlights the difficulty in recruiting students for church-related colleges: roughly 1 in 10 students attend a religiously affiliated private college and 1 in 50 a Christian liberal arts college, but only 1 in 500 a Bible college.
3The source for this figure is the College Board (see www.collegeboard.com/student/pay/add-it-up/4494.html).
4“Mounting Worries over College Costs Lead to Calls for Change,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 October 2008, A14.
Tom Tanner is vice president of academics at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College and Seminary. He is editor of Biblical Higher Education Journal published by the Association for Biblical Higher Education.