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Salt and light on campus

"Salt and light on campus" Continued...

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

VALUE ADDED: An outdoor lecture at Messiah College.
Matthew Tennison/Messiah College
VALUE ADDED: An outdoor lecture at Messiah College.
A class at Biola is filmed for an online course.
Courtesy of Biola University
A class at Biola is filmed for an online course.
MATTER OF DEGREE: Students at Houston Baptist University.
Michael Tims/HBU
MATTER OF DEGREE: Students at Houston Baptist University.
Students at College of the Ozarks.
Handout photo
Students at College of the Ozarks.
CHALLENGES: Former Azusa Pacific University professor Ackley.
Courtesy of the Clause/Azusa Pacific University
CHALLENGES: Former Azusa Pacific University professor Ackley.
Louisiana College
Angela Lu
Louisiana College

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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.” 

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