Hard Choices For Higher Ed
After nearly two decades of soaring growth, evangelical colleges and universities are seeing their fortunes turn downward, and—in a few instances—fall off a cliff. The severely weak economy is hurting private higher education as it is nearly every other business.
Heavily dependent on tuition-paying students, these schools are doing everything they can to maintain their enrollment numbers for this fall 2009 semester. The challenge is immense. Job losses and a growing inability to borrow for college are two major factors at play.
Naomi Spinella is a senior psychology major at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. Her parents emigrated from Italy to provide more opportunities—including college education—for their children. But her family had to start from scratch when they arrived in the U.S., and by 2007, her family's income was just above $20,000.
When it came time for Naomi and her older brother to enroll, her parents weren't able to afford Azusa Pacific, the school Naomi had dreamed of attending. Instead, she relied heavily on grants and scholarships, which nearly paid for her first two years. She then turned to student loans to make up the difference.
Naomi also relied on California's generous Cal Grant program, which provides grants (not loans) to qualified low-income students. More than 280,000 students expected to receive a grant for the 2009—2010 school year. Instead, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed phasing out the popular program to save more than $500 million for the state's crippled budget.
Having used Cal Grants for eight semesters, Naomi struggled to figure out how to pay for the rest of her schooling, since she needed four and a half years to complete her degree. "This last semester was a struggle," Naomi says. "The Cal Grant saved me $33,000 in the past three years, and that's hard to make up." She had to work furiously with Azusa Pacific's financial aid office—where she is employed—to arrange funding for her final year, but there was no guarantee.
"Going into my senior year, I was really afraid," Naomi says. "I wondered, How do we get through my last semester?" Azusa Pacific was able to arrange $6,000 in financing for her fourth year, making Naomi one of several students for whom Azusa Pacific has provided emergency financing. But she plans to graduate in December 2009, leaving her final semester still unpaid for.
Naomi's story illustrates the multiple challenges facing private Christian higher education across the country. Families have seen sharp declines in household income, and the crippled national banking system and near-bankrupt state governments are unable to maintain existing aid programs.
In order to keep students on campus, some colleges have launched new strategies. Last fall, for example, Biola University in La Mirada, California, initiated a student economic response council, which created two funds. One, raised mostly through student giving, provided $90,000 to students who would have otherwise needed to drop out.
"These tough economic times have been very hard on my family, as my dad works in the financial industry," one student wrote in a thank-you note to the school. "And I most likely would have had to leave had I not been granted this scholarship."
The second fund provided $100,000 for international students who were hit by the spike in the value of the U.S. dollar. In all, 150 students were able to stay on Biola's campus because of the program.