As the higher-ed landscape changes, it’s time for deeper conversations about what the future holds for Christian colleges and universities.
Higher education has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy and scandal, it seems, for the past few years. Students and parents are questioning whether or not college is worth the price. Colleges themselves have added fuel to the fire with stories such as the varsity blues scandal and need-blind admissions processes that fail to make good on the promise to admit students based on merit rather than family wealth.
Prospective college students and their families will continue to ask not only whether a college education is worth the financial cost, but also which type of college best provides the classroom and cultural experiences they desire. Of course, the answers to these questions are far from uniform. Some students thrive at large universities with stadium-style lecture hall classes; some students belong at colleges with seminar courses with a dozen participants. With thousands of institutions of higher learning in the United States, the options seem nearly endless.
In addition to considering characteristics such as institutional size and location, prospective students have traditionally decided between public and private colleges. In-state public colleges, especially flagship universities, often provide tremendous value. Private colleges, both religious and secular, provide distinctive experiences but often at a steeper price.
As tuition at colleges of all stripes continues to rise, one cannot help but wonder about the long-term stability of Christian higher education in the United States. Decreasing religious affiliation in the country will likely lead to a decline in the number of students seeking admission to faith-based universities. Also, proposed bills for free college almost always cover only attendance at public universities, with no type of voucher system or credit that could be applied to private schools, including religious institutions.
The prospects for Christian higher education in America can look pretty dire. In 2011, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen predicted that as many as half of American universities would close or go bankrupt within 10 to 15 years. Given that public universities rarely close, it is safe to assume that the bulk of those doomed schools would be small faith-based institutions with small endowments and few wealthy philanthropists among their alumni. Of course, if Christensen had been correct, we would already have seen massive university closures and mergers. And while we have seen some schools shut down or merge, most are still operating. Some colleges, including small religious ones, are thriving. We simply do not know if Christensen was entirely incorrect in his prediction or if he merely got the timeline wrong.
Regardless of how many Christian colleges remain in operation over the coming decades, there is without question a sincere need to make sure that a sizable number of Christian colleges remain in operation. These colleges serve students who want a college experience with religious foundations and a curriculum that respects and reflects their faith. Americans—for good reason—have devoted much energy over recent years toward building and promoting private and religious educational opportunities at the K–12 level. We would be remiss, however, not to have more conversations about the future of Christian education at the college and university level.
The Center for Civil Society will be engaging donors, nonprofit professionals, and scholars interested in education policy over the next year. Join us for a special webinar on November 28th, when we will discuss the Future of Christian Higher Education. I will be joined by Pete Peterson, Dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, and David Beer, Director of the Center for Christian Faith and Culture at Malone University, for a frank, illuminating discussion of this important issue.
And, be sure to mark your calendars for our 2024 Givers, Doers & Thinkers conference, "K to Campus: How the Education Reform Movement Can Reshape Higher Ed,” in Malibu, California. Taking place on the campus of Pepperdine University on October 24th, this conference will feature speakers and expert panelists who will address K–12 school choice, the importance of donor intent when making gifts to colleges and universities, and many other important and timely topics.