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Christian Colleges and the Titanic

How fragile is the assumed business model of Christian colleges? Are Christian colleges heading for a Titanic-like crisis? How stable is the rationale for getting a Christian college education? Are these concerns “alarmist”?

My friend sociologist John Hawthorne is pretty confident in their stability. He writes, “It is hard to kill a college in the absence of significant mismanagement.” He has years of experience as a college faculty and senior administrator to back up his claims. He may be right. The recently announced closing of Concordia University in Portland may prove his point. The mismanagement there was epic as outlined in the Oregonian newspaper account of its demise. I am far less sanguine about the future of Christian colleges and universities. I think it is probable that up to a fourth of Christian colleges will follow in Concordia’s sad prospect over the course of the next twenty years. As a college admissions counselor who regularly surveys the higher education market, works with parents and students in their college selection decisions, and is an expert on millennial and Gen Z values, I have a perspective that counters Hawthorne’s narrative.

First of all, I start with the assumption that the shift to a digital economy is greatly changing the realities of past business models. Amazon is decimating book stores and malls. Direct streaming is transforming the theatrical cinema market. And digital downloads has transformed the music industry. These same forces will impact how education is delivered in the future. And even with the changes we have witnessed, more are likely with the coming shift to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One cannot naively assume that higher education is immune from these same economic and technological forces. Collectively, they suggest that the future delivery of higher education will fragment into four distinctive competing niches: online, tutorial, research, and certification. What is also likely is that hybrid models where these niches are artificially graphed on to older models is at best only a transitional step. Hybrid efforts themselves will eventually fail. When one views education primarily as information transfer, online delivery will tend to dominate. When one views education as a means of personal transformation, smaller personalized tutorial models will dominate. When one views education in terms of advanced academic graduate research, then research universities will dominate. When one views education as a means of job training and career advancement, then certification models will dominate. What is unlikely is that all four of these approaches to education can be housed within one stable educational institution. College administrators and boards are going to have to decide in what environment they are going to compete and more importantly how they are going to transition from where they are, to where they need to be without imploding. This is a very difficult management task compounded by the fact that these are institutions that have historically been resistant to change. They are also institutions where their boards are increasingly out of synch with the educational vision and expectations of their faculties. As college administrators continue to adopt a business model and adopt these metrics as measures of success that are reinforced by business leaders on their boards, educational values are compromised and faculties are further alienated. A coming crisis is almost inevitable. I tell parents who are thinking about college placement that there are roughly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. However, of this number really only 400 really matter due to their educational quality and national reputation. This leaves about 3,600 colleges and universities that are highly susceptible to these changing forces—including almost all Christian colleges. Colleges with a strong national reputation and significant endowment are going to be less immediately impacted. Compounding these economic and technological challenges is the shifting perspective of young people today. The long assumed linkage between a college degree and a stable career is broken. The assumption that most high school students will automatically proceed to college is no longer true. The very real prospect of crippling student debt has made many families cautious about college admissions in ways that was not true prior to the 2008 financial crash. While it may be true that the bulk of the increase in college debt stems from professional, graduate, and for-profit degrees, the public perception has made everyone risk averse. The very value of a college degree is now in question for many prospective students.

This is heightened in Christian colleges that do not have as much student financial aid as state colleges and universities. They start with a financial disadvantage. Moreover, there are fewer and fewer children of Christian parents who are looking for a distinctively Christian education. There is a very real frame shift among millennial and Gen Z students that most Christian college administrators are unwilling to acknowledge. Christian colleges—who are most sensitive to meeting admissions goals—are competing for fewer and fewer students. The coming generation of students no longer have values that are easily aligned with the traditional Christian college. And this assumes that the Christian college is clear about what those values are. As administrators scramble for economic viability and prospective students these values get easily blurred and weakened. What does a distinctively Christian education mean? Does it have any value? Does it have value to prospective students? This is less and less clear. Some Christian college emphasize leadership preparation, other’s vocational calling, others a spiritual mission, and others a broadly kingdom vision. But in the woof and warp of actual college life for a student beyond the admissions brochure this is a lot less clear. In some cases, where clarity is sought—by doubling down on their theological and political bona fides—it is usually done in a manner that further alienates prospective students. John Hawthorne longs for a Christian college and university “that embraces the changes occurring in a post-Christian economy and found a way to ground those questioning students within a Christian liberal arts tradition, seeing their questioning as the raw material for education rather than a challenge.” But in today’s partisan and politicized public environment, such Christian colleges do not exist and are increasingly unlikely to exist. All evidence suggests that the evangelical church is loosing its next generation. It is not transferring the “faith of the fathers” to the next generation of children. Of the rise of religious nones, who make up 40-50% of millennials and Gen Z young people, three-fourth were raised in the church. It is for this reason that Christian colleges and universities are the bell weather in the coming youth faith crisis. So I cannot be sanguine about the future success of Christian colleges and universities. The economics, demographics, and value alignment are just not there. Moreover, resistant to innovation these are institutions that will resist change until it is too late to change or make changes that only make matters worse. I feel for Christian college presidents. It will take extra ordinary wisdom and skill to navigate these treacherous currents. Captain Edward J. Smith made incremental changes to the ship’s course, put a watch on the bow, maintained flank speed, and went to bed. He didn’t heed the warnings of the impending ice fields ahead of the Titanic. Incremental changes and charismatic confidence did not save his ship. Neither will it save Christian colleges and universities. My assessment is that their survival is much more in question than many are presently willing to acknowledge.

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