Cover Story

Salt and light on campus

Education | Christian colleges and universities feel the pressure to prove that the education they offer is worth the heavy costs

Issue: "Coat of many dollars," May 3, 2014

CALIFORNIA, TEXAS, LOUISIANA, and MISSOURI—Bright studio lights line the walls of a room in California as four professional cameramen zoom in for close-ups and “confession cam” interviews, a staple of reality TV. But this is not a Hollywood studio: It’s a class at Biola, the Christian university once called the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, and the scene is part of Biola’s attempt to improve its online courses by making them more than talking head videos. 

Biola is one of many Christian colleges trying to get ahead of the curve as many graduates this May joyfully toss their caps in the air and joylessly ask, “Was my education worth the staggering debt I now face?”

Meanwhile, many schools—especially small ones—are simmering in a cauldron of internal issues: heavy dependence on tuition even as enrollment shortfalls, puny endowments, money-sucking programs, and faculties sometimes torn between biblical belief and the lure of joining the liberal mainstream.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

In 2001 Bob Andringa, then president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), made a dire prediction for Christian higher education: “In 25 years, we’re going to lose 25 percent of our schools. Fifty percent will be just hanging, and 25 percent will be thriving.” Andringa, after visiting almost all of the then-105 members of the CCCU, noted deferred maintenance, outdated facilities, large debts feeding larger debts, programs “dying on the vine,” and a general lack of innovation.

Thirteen years later, Andringa’s prophesy seems to be coming true. A 2012 study by Bain & Co. consultants examining the financial sustainability of U.S. colleges and universities found that 36 percent of CCCU schools are sustainable, 32 percent are at risk, and 32 percent are unsustainable. So we visited Christian schools in several states and spoke with education leaders in others, asking: What’s the future of Christian higher education? Will the values it offers help prospective students and parents to overcome sticker price shock?

CONSIDER A GRADUATE JUST 12 YEARS AGO: Jodey Hinze, an energetic, self-described germophobic tax lawyer who graduated from a Christian private college in 2002 with a master’s degree. He was a first-generation college student who paid his way by scrubbing toilets at $4.35 per hour. Now, Hinze is interim dean of Houston Baptist University’s school of liberal arts.

Hinze would have to scrub even more toilets today, as the four-year cost of attending a CCCU school has jumped to $100,000. One reason is that many colleges compete for students by advertising shinier amenities, as Messiah College provost Randall Basinger noted: Many students expect air-conditioned dorms and a 24/7 state-of-the-art fitness center, so schools provide that and then some, with Jacuzzis and suite-style apartments boasting big plasma TVs. “Twenty, thirty years ago, it’s something we never even would have thought of, but we need to think of it now,” Basinger said. “The sad thing is that we’re cutting our own throats by being in competition with each other.” 

In addition, federal regulations are tightening around Title IV federal funding, which includes Stafford student loans, Pell grants, and family loans. As the government redefines what falls under “religious institutions,” aspects that make these schools unique—such as hiring only Christian faculty or defending a biblical view of marriage—could cost the schools an average of about $1,560 per enrolled student, according to a survey of 84 CCCU schools.

Biola University President Barry Corey said Christian higher education leaders are “naive” if they don’t consider the financial threats against their “deeply held convictions.” Some schools with many Christian students, such as Hillsdale College and Grove City College, have long opted out of government funding and thrived. But for smaller schools already struggling financially, cuts could be fatal.

Burton Webb, vice president of academic affairs at Northwest Nazarene University, noted that Christian schools are narrowing their socioeconomic diversity. Christian higher education now faces a tough question: Does appealing to the wealthier go against the Christian mission of serving the underprivileged and needy? 

COLLEGE OF THE OZARKS addresses Webb’s concern with its mission to provide free Christian education to students who couldn’t otherwise afford it. All students work 15 hours each week for their education, as well as two 40-hour weeks during breaks. The result: debt-free graduates leaving the school (near Branson, Mo.) with a diploma and a full resumé.

The school’s no-nonsense approach has helped it survive tough times. College of the Ozarks boasts an endowment of $410 million, the largest of any CCCU school and a heavy purse for a school with only 1,400 students. Donors love giving to a school where students unclog toilets and grind wheat, and they’re assured that their money won’t be spent willy-nilly—the school holds off any building project until it has sufficient money to fund it completely.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…