A consumer revolt is confronting 900 church-related colleges that educate nearly a million young people each year. Church colleges “have been institutionally oriented,” says Ted Cooper, Association of Admissions Counselors executive, “assuming that it would forever be the institution that would call the signals, and if consumers like it or not, it would all work anyway.”

But it’s beginning not to work. The students that church colleges recruit may be slow to picket, but they are quick to transfer; low costs, high academic quality, and few or no rules at public schools are strong selling points. So small, private colleges, already struggling to raise academic standards and lower tuition, lose students—and income.

One reason for that loss, suggests Cooper, is poor management. Some church-related colleges—College of Emporia and Baker University in Kansas, Tarkio College in Missouri, and Trinity University in Texas for example—are succeeding, but even efficient management may not draw enough donations to operate the colleges, let alone improve their facilities.

An educational consulting firm assisting several Roman Catholic colleges and universities estimates that the average Catholic liberal-arts college must raise about $4 million in the next five years. “To raise such a sum for purely operational needs,” the consultants note, “is a staggering task to an institution whose annual budget is probably only $1.5 million.”

Christian College for women in Columbia, Missouri, changed significantly, hoping to improve its financial situation. Last summer the college, which is loosely related to the Disciples of Christ, advertised nationally offering to name itself after anyone who would donate $5 million. When no one did, trustees changed ...

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