Sailing into the Storm: Philip Ryken and D. Michael Lindsay on the Challenges in Christian Higher Education
Traditional higher education is passing through troubled waters.
Overall, college costs continue to rise. Though more financial aid is available, more students than ever are seeking aid. And the interest rate on subsidized college loans will increase unless Congress acts by July. Less expensive, web-based instruction poses stiff competition to the classic four-year residential model. Many schools are ill-prepared for the so-called "browning of America," in which Hispanic and Asian student populations continue to outpace the Anglo population's much slower growth.
Evangelical colleges face additional challenges for their staunch commitment to biblical teaching on human sexuality, human origins, and the authority of Scripture. Christianity Today invited two new college presidents, Philip Ryken (Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, 2010) and D. Michael Lindsay (Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, 2011) to discuss these and other issues. CT's deputy managing editor Timothy C. Morgan recently interviewed them together on Wheaton's campus.
There is much doom and gloom about the future of higher education. Some argue it's simply too expensive. Others argue that Christian higher education can't compete with its secular counterparts. How do you respond?
Lindsay: I find it astonishing that people are questioning the value of Christian higher education. If I have to put my finger on the defining difference between what we offer and what our peers at [secular] institutions offer, there is something about the level of commitment that emerges from shared faith between faculty and staff and students. It's qualitatively different.
Ryken: A lot of the learning takes place beyond the curriculum. What excites me is the opportunity for young men and women to be on an entire campus full of peers who are very interested in growing intellectually, are serious about their Christian discipleship, and are deeply desirous of strong community relationships. It's a transformational experience that you may or may not get at other kinds of colleges.
Imagine a scenario with me: A student's parent says, "I'm sending my child to your college to stay out of trouble, find a spouse, graduate, get a great job somewhere, settle down, and start a family." Isn't that the American dream?
Lindsay: Those are important components of a whole life, surely. If that's all you're looking for in a college experience, then I don't think it's worth the investment. What we want is to enliven the minds of young people who have a chance to change the world. I did research on senior leaders. Over half of them had a liberal arts degree. Over half the leaders I interviewed cited the vital importance of a mentor during college.
Ryken: Our parents' deepest desire is for their sons and daughters to become the men and women God is calling them to become. If you look at what enables young people to sustain a consistent faith in Christ into adulthood, two of the factors are living in a like-minded community that really encourages them to follow this Savior, and having mentors who show them how to live the kind of life they're called to live.
Should the main goal of Christian higher education be spiritual formation or academic achievement?
Ryken: I don't want to dichotomize those. At Wheaton, we're trying to produce whole and effective Christians. What we mean by "whole" is not somebody who hasn't experienced brokenness and doesn't sense a need for God's grace, but whole in the sense of a complete person.
Lindsay: I didn't separate it out when I was teaching at Rice. I saw the moral formation of my students as fundamental to what I was trying to do in the academic classroom. The benefit [in a Christian college] is that you have institutional support to be able to do it. That's why students at Christian colleges and universities are more loyal to their alma mater. They've been more deeply shaped than those at secular schools.