In my last piece, we explored the decline in public confidence in higher education with Dr. Scott Yenor. But that raises a question: What’s happening with that sliver of the market called Christian higher education? It’s an especially relevant question if your kids or grandkids are coming of age.
Are Christians Souring on Christian Higher Ed?
The public may be souring on higher ed, but are Christians souring on Christian higher ed? That’s the question I asked myself as I was reading a thoughtful essay by Joseph Loconte, longtime Western civilization instructor at The King’s College in New York City. It’s a school, sadly, that’s on the verge of closing.
Their descent has been chronicled elsewhere. The short version is that King’s ran out of money as enrollment dwindled and other sources of funding couldn’t pick up the slack. This past May their accreditation was yanked, typically a death knell.
Loconte asks the question: “Where are the conservative and Christian foundations and philanthropists who understand the critical role of education in cultural renewal?” He argues that we’re spending too much time and treasure on politics and not enough on education. The result is we’re raising a generation that fails to appreciate the “remarkable inheritance of our Judeo-Christian civilization.” They won’t learn of it because we haven’t prioritized teaching it to them.
Dr. Yenor ended my interview alluding to the watered-down dribble now being pedaled as core curriculum in some of today’s colleges. Students once learned the richness of Western civilization and about the distinctiveness of America (warts and all). They read authors like Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and de Tocqueville, not to mention the Bible. They wrestled with the great ideas in the company of great minds.
Christian higher education holds the promise of continuing this tradition while also showing how all truth is God’s truth. “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). “The heavens declare the glory of God…day to day pours out speech” (Psalm 19:1-2). Nature and conscience bear witness to the God who made us in His image, with a rationality suited to the rationality and order found in nature. That way we can “think God’s thoughts after Him”—discovering the patterns and harnessing the laws of science into technological advances previously unimaginable. Science, mathematics, history, music, philosophy, the humanities—there is a unity in truth because it stems from one Author. This is the promise of distinctively Christian higher education.
To help us think through this topic, I’ve invited Dr. P. Jesse Rine. He’s the Executive Director at the Center for Academic Faithfulness & Flourishing. Before that he was a special assistant to the President at North Greenville University. Dr. Rine completed his undergraduate at Grove City College.
Alex Chediak: Dr. Rine, Gallup data has shown that the public is souring on higher education. Are Christian colleges experiencing the same or greater challenges than their secular peers?
Dr. P. Jesse Rine: Many Americans are losing faith in our institutions. When it comes to college, there are two main concerns driving this decline: price and politicization.
Over the last 50 years, college costs have increased by more than four times the rate of inflation, even as state support for higher education has declined. To bridge the gap, many students have increased their debt levels significantly. Student loan debt has outpaced inflation and has grown larger than credit card and auto loan debt combined. This has led to public concerns over college affordability and the push by some to forgive federal student loan debt.
Add to this the growing perception that college has become a political minefield and you have a recipe for loss of confidence. For decades, liberal faculty members outnumbered their conservative peers. But that ratio has actually doubled in recent years.
Yet the problem goes beyond structure. Campus climate has also shifted in troubling ways. The proliferation of speech codes, cancellation attempts, and deplatforming of speakers have created a chilling effect. Fewer students believe that free speech rights are secure.
Parents are asking, “How can a young person learn in such an environment? And why should such an experience cost so much?” In this cultural moment, people are looking for places that impart valuable skills and content knowledge within a supportive campus community. Christian colleges that avoid trendy political crusades and stay focused on their faith and learning mission will reap enrollment gains.
Chediak: Do you think churches should give some of their funds towards Christian colleges?
Rine: Yes. Most Christian colleges do receive financial support from their sponsoring churches. But this funding usually covers less than 5% of the annual budget. And denominational support has declined over the years.
History shows why this is so important. Most American colleges were founded by Protestant denominations, yet only a fraction remain Christian today. How did this happen? Many became secular after they separated from their founding churches, often out of a desire for more freedom. This desire tends to grow as denominational funding falls. When churches govern colleges but do not financially support them, that control can feel burdensome to campus leaders. In response, these leaders may attempt to cut denominational ties so they can pursue other revenue sources.
At their best, Christian colleges are parachurch organizations that play a role the local church isn’t equipped to perform. To do this well, these schools need support from the Body of Christ. Regular appropriations strengthen the vital connection between church and college. Church members gain a sense of ownership in the educational enterprise. Campus leaders see that the denomination is an invested partner. And Christian colleges are less likely to drift doctrinally.
Chediak: Recent data shows that undergraduate enrollment is 58% female. It’s not likely to get any more balanced. Last year, just 56% of male high school graduates went on to college compared to 66% of the young ladies. What’s happening? Might you know if these same trends are holding among Christian students?
Rine: That’s right, but it’s not just that a smaller proportion of young men go to college. Those who do are also less likely to graduate than women. Interestingly, the ratio within Christian colleges has remained steady for two decades. In 2001-02, research showed that 60% of their attendees were women. The latest counts for these schools show a similar percentage. What’s the takeaway? For years, Christian colleges enrolled a smaller proportion of men than the rest of higher education, but they haven’t been affected by the broader decline in men’s enrollment. Now they are roughly on par with the rest of American higher education.
Even so, many Christian colleges have noted what’s happening and are trying to get out ahead of the trend. Some are adding new men’s athletic programs, like football. Others are launching new majors that appeal to men, such as engineering. All are working to develop marketing messages that attract male students. The Christian vision presents a unique advantage because it views both masculinity and femininity as essential elements of God’s good design. Colleges that communicate this well make young men feel valued and welcome.
The cost concerns I mentioned earlier also play into this. At 18 years old, men typically have more good-paying employment options in the unskilled labor market than women. When the economy is strong, pursuing a vocational path can become more attractive than earning a pricey bachelor’s degree. Christian colleges that want to recruit and retain men should focus on offering reasonably priced degrees with tangible employment outcomes.
Chediak: For conservative Christian families, the question of wokeness seems to swirl in the background of their college search. How much of a problem is this? Do you see a correlation between enrollment stability and biblical fidelity?
Rine: It’s fair to say that American higher education has taken a woke turn over the last few years. Concepts like critical race theory (CRT) and gender ideology are now accepted as fact in the secular academy. These perspectives have also made inroads at some Christian colleges. Parents want their students to learn about these concepts, but they don’t want woke viewpoints pushed as the norm. They want education, not indoctrination.
One college president recently told me that his institution had “doubled down” on its Christian identity. What were the results? The market responded positively. Christian parents appreciated the college’s conviction and clarity. Non-Christian families did as well. While not sharing all the college’s values, they knew that their students would get a good education in a healthy environment. Enrollment grew as a result.
Recent reporting suggests this is just one example of a larger trend. Students are drawn to biblically faithful colleges. In the moment, standing on principle may seem costly. The world, and even some in the Christian community, will criticize schools that limit advocacy for CRT and gender ideology. But families are looking for places they can trust. Those who don’t get swept up by the spirit of the age will be rewarded.
Chediak: Thanks, Dr. Rine, for making yourself available.
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).
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