Whither the Evangelical Colleges?
by Allen C. Guelzo
In the heavenly city of American Evangelicalism, there are many mansionshigh-profile mega-churches (Willow Creek, Saddleback), international NGOs (World Vision), advocacy groups (Focus on the Family)but the most valuable of these mansions are the 110 colleges that make up the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). With over 325,000 students and 22,000 full-time and part-time faculty, the CCCU schools are the intellectual pumping-stations of Evangelical creativity. Rick Warren, the senior pastor of Saddleback, is a graduate of a CCCU school, as is Bill Hybels of Willow Creek; so is Wess Stafford of Compassion International, and Peter Greer of Hope International.
Yet, the network of Christian colleges that gleams in the sunlight as the ivory tower of Evangelicalism is neither as stable nor as influential as it wishes or appears. Five years ago, I surveyed the overall state of Evangelical Christian higher education in the United States, and came away impressed by three ominous developments:
That the financial health of Evangelical colleges was eroding even in the midst of record good times for higher-education funding;
That the need to survive in this environment was driving Evangelical colleges to recruit ever-downwards on the scale of qualified students, simply in pursuit of warm, tuition-paying bodies, and ever-upwards in pursuit of managerial presidents; and
That the faculties of Evangelical colleges were sitting surprisingly loose beside the tenets that were inscribed in their employers’ faith-statements.
When I called attention to these things, the response I got included a few amen’s and a few injured rationalizations for the incidents I’d cited. But mostly they elicited a frozen silence, the kind you hear when the divorced father shows up at his kiddies’ birthday party.
Silence, however, is not a healthy environment for truth, and the truth of the last five years has plainly been that the instability within Christian higher education has only gotten more pronounced, especially in the midst of an epic economic downfall.
Markers of Health
For the sake of benchmarking, let’s focus on the 110 colleges and universities that make up the CCCU; and let me focus within that on the fifteen schools with which I’ve had some practical contact over the years, so that I can speak from what I know. This sample includes Wheaton, which is acknowledged on almost all hands as the “flagship” of Evangelical higher education’s institutions, plus a number of the CCCU’s top-tier schools: Gordon, Calvin, Westmont, Covenant, and Messiah.
There is no single metric that tells a single story about the life and health of a college; but there are some particularly telltale markers, and these include:
The much-hated US News & World Report rankingscollege presidents routinely howl in dismay at how artificial such rankings are, but they just as routinely rush to display the slightest blush of good news from the USN&WR rankings on their college websites.
The range of scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing Program (ACT), which indicate the caliber of students being attracted and admitted to each school (and once again, there is a great deal of anxious denial about the importance of SAT scores, usually after a school’s overall SAT admittance levels drop).
Endowmentthe size of a college’s endowment is a marker of many things, including its likely resilience in lean financial years, and its freedom to pick-and-choose whom it admits without having to worry that rejecting too many students will deprive it of enough tuition revenue to survive.
Admission ratein blunt terms, the admission rate is an answer to the question, “Is this school so desperate to fill its seats/dorm rooms that it will take anybody?”
Alumni givingthis is the answer to a question at the other end of things from admission rates, in that it outlines how much value graduates have attached to the education they received (thus generating loyal donors) and how much value those degrees were worth in boosting the graduates into productive lives and careers (thus generating generous donors).
By these measurements, my sampling of Christian higher education is not going to make for restful sleeping. Wheaton enjoys by far the best overall rankings of any Christian collegeit is 55th among US News & World Report’s 2011 survey of the “Best National Liberal Arts Colleges”followed by Westmont at 99th, Calvin at 101st, Gordon at 131st and Houghton at 137th. On the other hand, these rankings are situated within 187 ranked liberal arts colleges, which means that only Wheaton managed to reach into the top third. And even then, Wheaton’s neighbors in the ranking were Beloit, St. Lawrence, Wabash, and Spelmannot quite the press-stoppers, but still upscale from Ursinus, Muhlenberg, Sweet Briar and Goucher.
The remaining ten colleges in my group of fifteen appear in the USN&WR rankings of the “best regional” institutions, which is where we find Messiah (near the top of the East Coast “regional” colleges), Covenant (no. 6 among the best “regional” colleges in the South), and Huntington (no. 6 in the Midwest). For the rest, the rankings are at best cold comfortthe comfort lying mostly in having enough of a pulse to be ranked at all.
One major factor in determining these rankings is the score an applicant has earned on either the SAT or the ACT. Once again, Wheaton reaches the top, but it is also the only one in that stratosphere. Four colleges in this sample will take students with SATs (or the equivalent in ACT scoring) as low as the 900s; and those who do rarely recruit a student with an SAT higher than the lowest score Wheaton will find acceptable.
Linked to the quality of students it accepts (or at least the quality of their test scores) is the quantity a college admits; in other words, the higher the percentage of students we see admitted from an applicant pool, the more likely that school will accept almost anyone who will fill its spaces and pay tuition. Here is where the statistics begin their ascent toward genuine alarm, because the lowest (i.e., most selective) admission rate for any of these colleges is a whopping 60 percent.
Overall, of the twelve schools in my sample that reported recent statistics, the average admissions rate was 77 percent. In other words, Christian colleges and universities pretty routinely admit three out of every four students who apply.
Can’t or Won’t Give
Then there is alumni giving. If trustees are the offensive linemen in the game of development, alumni constitute the backfield, since what trustees can muster in terms of individual gifts should provide immediate protection for the asset, but be matched and over-matched by the volume of giving from a college’s alumni, which marches the institution to the big touchdowns. But alumni giving depends on two factors (three, if we include a competent and aggressive alumni relations staff): motivation and ability.
A mediocre college will supply neitherstudents will feel indifferent loyalty to a college that hands them an indifferent education, and graduates with indifferent educations will generally not be in a financial position to be handsome givers. (Which is why, from the viewpoint of development officers, every admissions decision is like a minor-league draft pick: with the right skills and the right seasoning, the right prospect has the long-term potential to become an endowment star).
But to judge by the figures for these fifteen schools, either the motivation or the ability for alumni giving is largely absent. Wheaton and Calvin have the most loyal alumni, and it shows in their alumni giving rates. But Eastern, Biola, and North Park lag far, far behind the pack. The immediate rationalization that I hear for this is that such-and-such college is dedicated to serving the poor, the outcast, the lepers, and so forth, and so its graduates have no deep pockets for giving, and that I am laying spiritually minded colleges on a secular-minded Procrustean bed.
Maybe so. Or it may be that the education they got simply rewarded them so little after they graduated that they either wouldn’t or couldn’t give. And this may go some distance toward explaining why only six of the leading American Evangelicals whom Time profiled in 2005 as America’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals” were graduates of CCCU schools (and three of them came from just one schoolWheaton College).
Another major factor in the rankings is endowment, and here the figures are even more dire. Wheaton’s endowment not only declined in absolute terms by 22 percent from 2008 to 2009, but in comparative standing against other college endowments, it fell from 166th place in 2003 to 199th in 2009. Messiah’s endowment, which was the 302nd largest in 2002, sagged to 320th in 2003, and fell still further to 345th by 2009; Seattle Pacific’s endowment, which was pegged at 398th in 1994, sank to 578th place in 2009. In other words, not only were Evangelical college endowments falling behind when times were good for endowments, but they were falling even worse than others when the times were bad.
It is true, however, that taken by themselves, these numbers may mean little apart from establishing a certain rough-and-ready hierarchy among Christian colleges and universities, which some of us knew was there all along. Where the numbers become ominous is when they are placed beside a control group of non-Christian colleges and universities that inhabit places nearby in the USN&WR rankings.
Swallowing a bit of my own medicine, let’s take my own employer, Gettysburg College, along with Wabash College (which ranks next after Wheaton on the “Best National Liberal Arts Colleges” list) and West Chester University, a component of the Pennsylvania state university system and classified among the “regional universities.” Even though Gettysburg’s student body is almost identical to Wheaton’s as measured by SAT/ACT scores, Gettysburg is almost twice as selective as Wheaton in terms of admissions. Its endowment is actually less than Wheaton’s (especially after the market drop-offs of the past three years), but its rate of alumni giving is substantially higher.
Wabash has a bigger endowment than either, despite losing a bigger chunk of it to the market downturn, and its admission rate beats Wheaton by a considerable percentage, as does its alumni giving. Even West Chester University, a state school that evolved out of the West Chester State Teachers’ College, has a more selective admissions rate and higher SAT/ACT scores than two-thirds of my Christian college sample.
Most of the latter, in fact, have admission rates, SAT/ACT scores, and alumni-giving rates that are in pretty much the same range as Eureka College in Illinois (Ronald Reagan’s alma mater) and Bethel College in Indiana (another CCCU college). And the bad news about that comparison is that Eureka and Bethel have recently earned the unwanted distinction of a failing score on the Department of Education’s annual “test” of financial strength.
Failing Financial Grade
Eureka and Bethel are two of 149 private colleges that had the bell of test-failure hung around their necks for their performance in fiscal year 2009. Out of the 3,600 private colleges and universities in the United States, that’s not quite a “woe is us” situation, especially since the failures include a number of low-visibility educational enterprises (the Tai Sophia Institute, Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College, Dell-Arte International School of Physical Theatre). Nor does it mean that these schools have cracked open their last piggybank.
But it does mean that the Department of Education has become concerned enough about shrinking endowments, indebtedness, and operating deficits at these schools to ask for additional letters of credit to guarantee the flow of financial aid money. It’s a precaution, not a sentence. But if that precaution includes Eureka and Bethel, then it cannot bode well for the half of the Christian colleges in my sample that look pretty much like Eureka and Bethel.
In fact, the really dismaying realization that emerges from the Department of Education’s failure list is how many of the schools that have been on the list in the past three years have been religious or denominationally affiliated colleges, universities, or graduate schools. They include Valley Forge Christian College (all three years), Dallas and Westminster Theological Seminaries, Tennessee Wesleyan and Kentucky Wesleyan Colleges (United Methodist affiliates), and Alderson-Broadus and Bacone Colleges (American Baptist). Worse still, thirteen of the CCCU’s 110 member institutions12 percent, if you like percentageshave appeared on the test-failure list in the last three years, starting at the very top of the Council’s prestige schools with Gordon College, and including Houghton, Judson, Bethel, Bryan, Montreat, and Malone.
Since a college education is, short of a kidnapping, the largest financial outlay parents will ever make for their children, and since college costs have more than doubled over the last forty years, it is worth pondering how Evangelical higher education painted itself into this cornera corner where its financial grip is weak, its student population is lagging, and its profile in American higher education is shrinking. There are three answers to this question.
One of them is overpopulationnot of students, who, as the admission numbers testify, are taken almost as fast as they offer themselves, but of schools. Christian higher education is overpopulated with institutions, and especially with too many small colleges. Many of these colleges began small because, when they were founded in the glory days of college foundings, between 1850 and 1950, almost all American colleges were small; and they have often stayed small because they were once the property of small denominations anxious not to lose their youth or eager to develop their own leaders.
But a college (even a small one) is no longer an institution that churches can support. Overhead costs for a college are staggering in their demands: laboratories, libraries, computer networks, administrative paperwork, state and federal regulationsand increasingly high-end recreational and dormitory facilities offering what Ben Wildavsky has called “a steady diet of extracurricular hedonism” in order to attract student-consumers who can easily find these things elsewhere.
Between 1995 and 2006, spending growth on student services and administration outpaced growth in expenditure on instruction by a multiple of 2 at the private research colleges, 1.75 at public research colleges, and 3.2 at public master’s degree granting colleges. “My university,” observed Robert VerBruggen in 2009, “has a sustainability co-ordinator, a recycling co-ordinator, and umpteen diversity and public-relations specialistsalmost none of whose posts existed when I began teaching.”
The colleges that make up the CCCU have long since outgrown the ability of their parent denominations adequately to support them, but they have not grown enough to develop competitive institutional permanence. For that reason, Christian higher education has been notoriously unable to achieve economies of scale, simply because it must replicate the same facilities and infrastructure in too many places.
A second answer flows from the first. As institutions sink further into the doldrums, they seek solutions in the form of “Rolodex presidents”presidents who may or may not have much understanding of the life of liberal arts education and who may or may not have much personal investment in the Evangelical identity of the college, but who have been picked out of a corporate Rolodex of “successful leaders,” either by boards of trustees or executive search firms. The reach for the Rolodex comes all too naturally to many boards of trustees, since their members are frequently people who are trained to think, or accustomed by habit to think, of leadership precisely in corporate terms.
A recent report for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) blamed “the lower likelihood of presidents coming from the academic ranks” on “trustee search committees” who don’t see actual members of the academy itself as having “the fundraising and managerial skills they assume are needed.” Given “the importance of teaching and learning” in CIC schools, it came as a surprise to CIC researchers to find that the Rolodex generation of college presidents now consider fund-raising, risk management and legal issues, capital improvement projects, budget and financial management, and “entrepreneurial ventures” to be their top five priorities.
The result is that the Rolodex presidents tend not to be particularly successful at their real job, which is being the president of a learning institution. They are often very good at pleasing constituencies and boards; but having done so, they stay only as long as their charm or their tricks work, and then move on to the next presidency. And this keeps on happening because boards do not know whom else to hire, partly because “executive search” firms are primarily interested in selling from their own stable of candidates, and partly because the people who really know the inside-out of the institutionthe facultyonly want to be left alone.
And that answer leads to the third answer: Faculty want to be left alone because, for the most part, their primary allegiance is to their professional guild, “a largely closed community of practitioners,” says Louis Menand, “who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields” (e.g., history, chemistry, physics, sociology, and so on). Allegiance to the college fades far back in the wake of the academic career. Faculty think of themselves as historians, chemists, physicists and sociologists first, rather than as members of a certain college faculty, because that’s where the mobility is.
This means that, even for Christian colleges, there is only modest incentive for a faculty member to buy into a Christian college’s worldview paradigm. Given the atmosphere of financial fragility, the resources to reward the development of such a worldview are simply not there, and the professional cultures in which faculty are trained are actively hostile to it.
The yardsticks by which I have been measuring the decline and fall of many Christian colleges have been, I admit, secular ones: endowment, admittance rates, and so forth. All of these I could cheerfully agree to dismiss if they were the price being paid by a college for its commitment to a forthrightly Christian identity. But they are not. In pursuit of Rolodex presidents and guild-minded faculty, too many Christian colleges are actually begging to be judged by secular standards. They are, in effect, trying to serve two masters. I am simply taking them at their word.
What’s the Core Business?
What we are witnessing is a phenomenon common to many industries and organizations as they mature, namely, a difficulty in identifying what their “core business” is. Businesses mature, but if their self-understanding of that “core business” does not remain constant, they also wither and die. The railroads died as a business because they thought they were in the railroad business when they were really in the transportation business, and the automobile and jet airplane effectively destroyed them. Today, we lament the demise of newspapers. But the newspapers have suffered largely because newspapers came to believe they were in the journalism business when in fact they had always been in the paid-advertising business.
In the nineteenth century (and into the twentieth), the core business of higher education was obvious: education, mostly classical in nature, to create a pool of culturally homogeneous elites. The bulk of American colleges were Christian and denominational foundations, with faculties taken from the clergy of those denominations. Their first loyalty was to the denomination, their second to the college itself as a function of the denomination, and their aim was the handing-on of a certain culture.
But the advent of the German-model research university in the 1870s reversed the polarities of higher education in America. What mattered now was not how artfully professors handed on the tradition, because tradition was only a temporary phenomenon that was evolving its way toward something else; what mattered was research into that evolution. And those who saw their lives as bound up with research found that they had very little time and even less inclination to worry about handing on traditions. Honors, promotions, and rewards were unavailable to the guardians of a tradition, but they comprised the bone-and-marrow of the life of the new research-minded academic.
Credentialing & Prestige
But was this still education? By the mid-twentieth century, higher education’s purpose in American life had been gradually transformed into two not always coincident purposes: (1) supporting research and (2) credentialing a workforce (not, mind you, by imparting to students any particular body of knowledge or even a particular set of vocational skills, but by certifying the students’ eligibility for white-collar employment).
Credentialing, in turn, came to depend on the prestige of the credentialing institution, not on its faithfulness to a tradition; hence the obsession with “rankings” because all that “rankings” of the USN&WR sort are, are markers of prestige. “A college degree remains a hot commodity, a ticket of entry to valuable social networks, a signal to employers that graduates have achieved a certain proficiency in manipulating concepts, performing computations, and getting along with peers,” says Peter Berkowitz, but when it comes to education, “university curricula explicitly and effectively aimed at producing an educated person rarely exist.”
I often ask parents what they really think the purpose of a college education is; just as often, they frankly reply, “to get a good job.” It surprises them when I disagree. If that were the case, no college graduate should be unemployed. What a college degree really confers is not employment, but prestige, and the higher the prestige of the college granting the degree, the higher the prestige of the diploma enjoyed by the graduate. It is certainly true that a prestige diploma will be very useful in getting a job, but it does not do the hiring.
This is even true within higher education itself. The first item that search committees are liable to look for in a pool of applicants for a faculty job is the institution granting the applicants’ Ph.D. Not only does an Ivy League Ph.D. automatically leap the queue over the head of a Ph.D. from the University of Northern South Dakota, but also the hiring of an Ivy League Ph.D. confers prestige on the committee (and the department, dean, and college) that does the hiring. No longer, then, can it be said that American higher education is in the business of education. In fact, it is in the business of conferring and recruiting prestige.
Path to Decline
But Christian higher education, if it has any raison d’etre at all, is in the business of handing on a tradition, not of piling up research or conferring credentialsin other words, its real “core business” is education. If Christianity is a revealed religion, then the content of that revelation is both fixed and authoritative; it does not bend, wilt, or evolve gradually into something else. It will not be improved by research into religious phenomena. Thus, the Christian college may recover, re-emphasize, and reform, but it will not re-design.
Or, alternately, it may fall further into forgetfulness of its “core business.” It will attempt to keep up the research-and-credentialing game, only to discover that it does not possess sufficient credentialing prestige and lacks the resources to acquire it. The college will then attempt to make up for the low value of its credential by expanding access (either by lowering the admissions bar or by exfoliating degree-granting programs), but this will only deflate the value of the credential even more.
And the college will do this (as one deliberately anonymous adjunct complained in The Atlantic) “without thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.” It will compete for Rolodex presidents or for prestige-credentialed faculty without regard for theological integrity. Or it will become what Michael Barone has called a “drop-out factory,” where students matriculate, pay up-front (and non-refundable) fees, then drop off the academic stern, while the crew in the bow casts the nets for a new class of fee-payers.
Eventually, the college’s prestige will fall so low that it cannot compete with online and for-profit rivals, and it will cease to remain viable. It will come as no surprise at all, especially if we are headed into a double-dip recession, to see a wave of closures and consolidations over the next ten years, with up to 25 percent of the CCCU colleges shutting their doors, and another 25 percent combining campuses with other CCCU schools or selling off to for-profit ventures.
A Reason for Educating
This will be a great loss because Evangelical higher education really does possess a reason for the “core business” of educating. Evangelicals really do believe that there is a transcendent meaning to learning, that the love of learning is indeed akin to the desire for God. In fact, believing this, the Evangelical college ought to be the one place that really has a foundation from which to hold back the vast outpouring of cultural bilge, from violent video games to proletarian entertainment.
It comes as no shock to discover that secular universities can find no cultural consensus, since they abandoned that a long time ago; and it is not news, since Ex Corde Ecclesia, that Catholic colleges and universities are far from being of one mind on their identity. But it will mean the end of yet another important cultural alternative if Evangelical colleges, one by one, go downor worse, pull themselves down, because their leaders and their faculties could not make up their minds what core business they were in, and sat in silence.
Michael Barone, “Higher education bubble poised to burst,” Washington Examiner (September 3, 2010).
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“Course Corrections” first appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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