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.
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 Andringa, after visiting almost all of the then-105 members of the CCCU, noted deferred maintenance, outdated facilities, large debts feeding larger debts, programs “dying on the vine,” and a general lack of innovation.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.
As attractive as the “work college” model may seem, President Jerry Davis says it’s difficult for existing Christian schools to replicate it, short of starting anew. For one, work colleges require a lot of money to run because they get no revenue from tuition. But the other issue, Davis says, is “you’ve got some of these colleges full of kids so lazy, they can hardly get them up in the morning, let alone go out there and milk cows.”
While College of the Ozarks gets students elbow-deep in old-school chores, schools like Indiana Wesleyan University and Biola are beefing up their enrollment through cheaper online courses. Indiana Wesleyan’s student population went from 2,000 in 1987 to almost 16,000 today—12,000 of them online students. Online education allows students to study at home, work day jobs, and save on housing. But will such cost-cutting also cut out the discipleship that’s so central to Christian higher education?
Yes, according to surveys showing that online students feel disconnected and drop out at higher rates. Biola University theology professor Erik Thoennes argues that such disengagement is a “theological reality,” because “when God wanted to relate to us, He didn’t set up a video chat but actually came in flesh.”
Still, Aaron Kleist, Biola’s assistant provost for academic innovation, is working to improve Biola’s online courses, and the effort to produce high quality videos is part of that effort. To build community within online cohorts, students film video responses rather than merely type comments in discussion threads, and video-chat their professors. Kleist said student participation jumped fivefold.
Some schools aim to curtail tuition early on by providing discounted dual-enrollment programs, so that high-school students can get a jump start on college credits. Houston Baptist University’s The Academy, a new dual-credit program for middle- and high-school students, partners with local private schools and homeschooling communities to provide a Socratic-style classical curriculum taught by HBU faculty.
It’s a win-win situation: Academy students pay a discounted tuition rate of $800-$1,000 per year to earn up to 60 college credits, thus reducing future college costs. The best students are granted automatic admission to HBU’s Honors College. Meanwhile, HBU gets to train and cherry-pick the brightest high-school seniors without having to spend additional money on student recruitment or facilities.
Director Cate MacDonald said The Academy prepares future freshmen for a rigorous college course both academically and spiritually. One Academy student said he was once terrified after hearing so many tales about young Christians who lost their faith in college. But after a year at The Academy, in which he got to ask and debate hard questions his church couldn’t answer, he felt “equipped” to face college.
MacDonald, who was homeschooled until college at Biola University, said kids entering college with big questions “should get much better answers than they get. I think philosophy and English professors have way too easy a job knocking students off their pedestal.”
BUT IN ADDITION TO ECONOMIC CHALLENGES, Christian colleges also face the familiar challenge of maintaining their spiritual health. A characteristic pattern of a “faith-centered” institution’s slide into a “once-religious” mainstream academy begins when leadership, typically the school president, tips preference for academic prestige over Christian identity when hiring faculty.
All CCCU member schools are required to hire only Christian professors, but the definition of what that means theologically varies widely within its 120 members. Some schools from nonliturgical traditions don’t require professors to sign a doctrine statement—and many slip in professors who roam from Christian principles. Some situations become so public, though, that colleges need to take action.
This academic year brought two notorious cases at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. APU dropped Ryan Bell, an adjunct professor in the Global Studies Department, after he publicly announced he doubted Christianity and planned to “try on” atheism for a year—no praying, no church. Instead, he would read atheist authors and “live as though there was no God.” Hollywood Adventist Church stripped Bell of his position as senior pastor last April for supporting same-sex marriage, but he taught the fall term at APU.
Last September, Azusa let go of a professor of 15 years, Heather Clements, after the former chair of theology and philosophy requested that others call her H. Adam Ackley. “This year has been a transition from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” Ackley told Religion News Service. After the announcement, Ackley told RNS that Azusa officials didn’t seem to have “a theological problem with transgender identity” but showed “concern that other people, such as donors, parents, and churches connected to the university, will have problems not understanding transgender identity.”
In response, the school government held talks this year on “sexual minorities,” where faculty and administrators answered questions about same-sex marriage and transgendered individuals. President Jon Wallace reiterated the school’s official stance that “humans were created as gendered beings” and “heterosexuality is God’s design for sexually intimate relationships.”
Ashley Duckgeischel, who was both an undergraduate and a graduate student at APU, said at first the different views of her professors—including one who attacked her belief in Bible inerrancy—surprised her. She considered transferring, but the longer she stayed, the more she found students with genuine faith and professors helpful in her academic and spiritual growth: “If you want to find awesome Christians, you can find awesome Christians. If you want to find a party school, you can find a party school.”
A COLLEGE PRESIDENT CAN ALSO SET THE TONE of the school’s culture, sometimes negatively, as is the case of Louisiana College in Pineville, La.
President Joe Aguillard attained his position in 2006 and did what the Louisiana Baptist Convention asked him to do: He got rid of secularly minded professors. But that initial accomplishment was followed by a series of setbacks, as Aguillard borrowed money to build a football stadium, even as moldy campus facilities desperately needed $35 million in repairs. Planned medical and law schools never materialized. Faculty salaries remained among the lowest of CCCU schools, while the president's salary was the 7th highest in the CCCU when compared against the school's budget, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Former students and professors also spoke of an atmosphere of fear and retribution. No current faculty would talk to us, but two professors who criticized Aguillard told us they received non-renewal letters. Accrediting agency Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said in March that it plans to open an investigation into Louisiana College after allegations that school officials submitted forged signatures, according to The Town Talk. On April 15, the college announced that Aguillard will step down as president on May 31 and become president emeritus.
Houston Baptist University shows how strong leadership can revive a school. A decade ago HBU struggled with dwindling enrollment, low retention and graduation rates, and seeping secularization among its faculty. Robert Sloan, the former Baylor University president, became HBU president in 2006 with a plan to re-establish “a distinctive Christian education,” and freshman enrollment last year increased by a record-breaking 10 percent, even as average enrollment among CCCU schools fell 8 percent. Sloan also hired officers and faculty prominent in the field of Christian apologetics, such as provost John Mark Reynolds, William Lane Craig, Nancy Pearcey, and Lee Strobel.
The future of Christian higher education is hazy. The economic challenges are immense, and maintaining or building a strong Christian identity is difficult. But in HBU’s case, building a strong Christian focus helped with the economic challenges, prompting higher enrollment and donations to expand the campus.
Our investigation found that several key factors may doom a Christian institution: incompetent financial planning, poor leadership, indistinctive education, and unorthodox professors. CCCU schools can err at either extreme: On one end, coddling students within a “Christian bubble” and quarantining them from “bad ideas,” and on the other offering a nearly secular education, relegating the “Christian” part of higher education to chapel and campus ministries.
HBU’s Nancy Pearcey, who teaches cultural apologetics, believes both sides fail to equip the future generation: “Young people are not going to survive in this increasingly secular society if we don’t find a way to permeate every field with apologetics”—not just in overtly religious classes, but in every discipline from psychology to computer science: “You have to teach young people how to defend a Christian perspective in their fields. Young people’s questions are going to be different from the questions faced by earlier generations. … We need to love them enough to answer their questions.”
The board of trustees at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., on April 11 held to its insistence on a college statement of faith clarification likely to push out professors who do not believe that God created Adam by a special formative act rather than through the process of evolution.
The latter view, held by many theistic evolutionists, allows for faith in God and strong faith in mainstream scientific theories, but diminishes confidence in Genesis as history rather than myth, and undercuts the teaching of Paul and other authors of the Bible (for details regarding Bryan’s specific debate, please visit wng.org ), but the controversy also spotlights a debate on the goals of CCCU institutions generally.
Many Christian liberal arts colleges assert that their goal is to teach students how to think and not what to think. That is laudable in most areas, but should it mean that colleges do not care if students graduate with the belief that the Bible is merely a book compiling man’s fallible teaching rather than God’s inspired wisdom?
Last month an online poll produced by Bryan’s campus newspaper asked students, “What do you believe about the origins of the universe and man?” Some 40 percent of respondents said they believed God created everything in six 24-hour days, and 20 percent said they supported Intelligent Design, which usually means creation over a longer period of time. But 40 percent supported different theories, with half of those supporting theistic evolution, most of the rest endorsing Darwinian evolution that leaves out God entirely, and a few saying they did not know.
That 40 percent slippage is not surprising even at a college sometimes labeled “fundamentalist.” Mainstream scientists ridicule critics of evolution, whether they have doctorates or not, and deprive them of career and publishing opportunities. The New York Times in 1925 demanded “faith” in evolution even as it castigated William Jennings Bryan for having faith in the Bible, and the pressure to conform has only intensified since then.
In such an environment, a Christian college that proclaims it will just throw out to students a variety of theories and let them decide, is abandoning the battle for the Bible. The playing field is not level, and the tendency of most teens to seek popularity and security will incline many to accept evolution. If Christian colleges at least hope to balance out cultural pressure, they need professors who will confidently and enthusiastically put before students the ample biblical and scientific evidence for Intelligent Design. —Marvin Olasky