Its future must entail more than mere survival—it will require excellence.

Can a college really die? The answer is an emphatic “yes.”

A few years ago I was on the campus at Parsons College in Iowa, a school enjoying unprecedented success. Buildings were under construction, enrollment was booming, faculty salaries were among the highest in the nation as the school known as “Last Chance U” capitalized on a unique and highly publicized educational program for academic underachievers.

But then the college encountered mounting problems, and it finally had to close. When I visited the campus several years later, I found a barricade blocking the main entrance. An ugly snow fence circled the grounds and signs were posted warning trespassers. Weeds had taken over and I noticed broken windows in many of the empty buildings. It was a dismal scene. The college was dead.

I thought of the many students whose plans had been shattered, of faculty members whose careers had been interrupted, of families whose lives had been disrupted. To one who has spent his entire adult life in higher education it was heartbreaking.

Yet today many private colleges, including some well-known Christian schools, face impending and lamentable death. By 1990 some long-established Christian schools will be but a memory while others will be dramatically altered. Some alumni will no longer have an alma mater and other graduates will bemoan the fact that their school is no longer distinctively Christian.


Projections just released by the National Center for Educational Statistics predict that there will be 500,000 fewer college students nationwide in 1988 than in 1979. The center also projects that the average enrollment in private colleges will be down by 7.4 percent by 1988. In addition, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects a dramatic decline in high school seniors between 1979 and 1995.

On a state-by-state basis, the commission figures also cause concern. A band of states from New York westward to Illinois will all show a striking decline in high school graduates in the next 15 years (New York, 42 percent; Pennsylvania, 37 percent; Ohio, 31 percent; Michigan, 31 percent; Illinois, 31 percent). Recognizing that many of the established Christian colleges are located in these states, the prospects for stable enrollment become discouraging since obviously we cannot add to the numbers by creating instant teen-agers.

Economic recession, double-digit inflation, an energy crisis, and increasing demands by state and federal governments have alerted, but hardly prepared schools for the grim days ahead. The National Institute for Education has recently estimated that goods and services which cost the typical college approximately $1,800 in 1979 will cost $3,450 by 1989.

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The Christian college must face these realities. Most, if not all, Christian schools depend on tuition and fee income to meet the major part of their annual operating expenses. Fewer students mean less income—and at a time when costs are spiraling. Reductions in program or personnel are difficult because most small colleges have little “excess” in their operation. A significant budget reduction at a small college can cut into the heart of a program and seriously erode the quality of education. Thus it is possible for a fragile institution to try harder but become progressively weaker.

A number of Christian schools have recently announced that they are “holding their own” or that they finished the year “in the black.” This should not lead to false optimism. A school can adopt survival methods to get through one year that guarantee a future worse than the present. Temporary expedients lead to potential disaster: the withholding of salary increases, the transfer of endowment funds to operating expenses, or the curtailment of significant programs or services may create momentary euphoria but also may create a time bomb waiting to explode.

Few Christian colleges have monetary reserves to face a serious financial emergency. Contingency accounts are almost unknown in a day when just about everyone is living hand-to-mouth. But emergencies do occur.

Not many Christian colleges have contemplated the most serious contingency of all—the loss of public funds designated for student scholarships. What college could survive the loss of state scholarship funds, Veterans Administration, and social security benefits? Or the elimination of National Direct Student Loans and Work-Study programs, or withdrawal of Basic Opportunity and other government financial grants designated for students? Yet this may well happen.

But although the government might curtail financial aid programs, it is more likely that a Christian school would find the controls accompanying government funds so intolerable that it would voluntarily withdraw from the programs. There is no assurance that this action would bring freedom from government interference, but it certainly would create financial disaster on the local campus. Thus, Christian colleges may one day find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

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Possible Solutions

Schools could respond in a variety of ways. Some could develop innovative programs designed to attract a new clientele. But there is not much new in higher education and seldom do such programs prove to be educationally sound and financially feasible. Some Christian colleges may decide to become “community” schools and serve the local geographical area. While it may be exciting to think about achieving fiscal stability and at the same time extending the evangelical outreach, it just does not work that way. The wholesale influx of students who are either neutral or hostile to spiritual things is not designed to enhance the spiritual ministry of any Christian college.

A college might launch a sophisticated public relations campaign where Madison Avenue techniques are used to “tell the story.” Unfortunately, very few stories are unique enough to make a difference. The similarity of Christian college advertisements is distressing. Names of schools could be interchanged and the readers would scarcely notice. Advertising is important, but the more important thing is to have something to say.

Christian students and their parents have every right to ask if a Christian college education is really worth the extra investment and family sacrifice. Increasingly they will probe behind the public relations to determine if claims for excellence can be substantiated. They will want to know the hard facts about academic excellence and spiritual commitment. They will seek to explore the “heart” of an institution and will not be content with the façade.

The Key

There are no short cuts to success. I believe the key not only to survival but to excellence in the 1980s and beyond is a satisfied student. When a Christian student understands the special mission of the college, when he experiences a first-rate educational program, when he has sound opportunities for spiritual growth and development, and when he is in contact with people on campus who consistently demonstrate Christian love and concern, it is then that a student can expect a satisfying experience.

Student satisfaction has a “snowballing” effect. Satisfied students mean happy families who appreciate the college and spread the good word. Satisfied students mean loyal alumni who care. Satisfied students mean constituents who believe because of what they hear and see. And student satisfaction depends largely on the integrity of the institution: its programs and its people.

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Institutional integrity demands a clear sense of identity and purpose. The Christian college must define and articulate what it is and what it does. It matters little if the school specializes in work-study, biblical concentration, technological education, or the liberal arts; it must determine its own unique role in the educational spectrum, and concentrate efforts there. And as a Christian school there must be an uncompromising institutional commitment to biblical truth and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

But a statement of mission alone is not enough. There must also be a total program, both in and out of the classroom, which validates claims the institution makes for itself. Integrity demands that a Christian college do only what it can do well. “Selective excellence” becomes essential. Realistically, students are the first to know when deeds do not correspond with lofty phrases. A disillusioned student is rarely satisfied.

Some years ago the dean of a denominational college that had been generously supported through the years by a politically conservative philanthropist said to me, “I hope our philanthropist friend never comes on campus and sees for himself what is really going on here.” It was unfortunate for the college that the donor did visit, did see for himself, and did abruptly terminate his financial support. But the greater tragedy was that the historic mission of the college had become merely hollow words.

Institutional integrity can rise no higher than the personal integrity of the key people involved. College trustees must be more than mere figureheads or rubber stamps. They must strive to understand the uniqueness of Christian higher education and to know their own institution intimately. They must establish sound policies and yet keep “hands off” the ongoing day-to-day administration. They must be willing to work, to give, and to pray for the success of the college they serve.

Administrators must not only be skillful in institutional management, but they must also be people of personal conviction and integrity. They must have a dedication of purpose and a consistency of life that all can see. Ability alone is not enough. There must be evidence of spiritual maturity and a willingness to commit every aspect of life, on the job and off, to the pervasive care of God’s Spirit.

Faculty and staff members represent the most significant influence in the life of the developing college student. People are far more important than facilities, and a good faculty is essential to a good college. Christian faculty members have two basic responsibilities—to teach well and to serve as spiritual exemplars to maturing young people. That is, they must be consistent role models both in and out of the classroom.

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The future of the Christian college must entail more than mere survival. The goal should be survival with excellence. This demands the utmost in stewardship and commitment. It means that colleges must stand firm, refusing to compromise their distinctive spiritual mission. It means the development of solid educational programs that command respect in academic circles. It requires attention to the development of people that results in knowledgeable and dedicated trustees along with competent and committed administrators, faculty, and staff. And it means a basic institutional integrity that will be reflected in satisfied students, loyal alumni, and enthusiastic and generous constituents.

Some schools, limited in number, seem to have responded to the challenge and are ready to tackle the future with confidence. Unfortunately, others do not appear to be good prospects for survival. Some undoubtedly will die while others may linger on, but without distinction. Any Christian college that is just “hanging on” by virtue of educational fads, novel programs, or compromises over spiritual principle seems a prime prospect for eventual failure.

As this new era dawns, Christian colleges across the land face their most challenging struggle, one that involves not only the colleges themselves, but the entire Christian community. The stakes are very high. Evangelicals cannot just stand on the sideline and watch. The Christian college that refuses to compromise its historic purpose, exhibits integrity in its program, and demonstrates stewardship in its use of resources deserves the full support of the evangelical community. The call to action is now.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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