As Christian schools adapt their education models to an unfriendly market, several are experimenting with offering free tuition to some or all of their students.
Starting this semester, Sattler College, a small Anabaptist college in Boston, announced that it will not be charging any of its students tuition. The president, Zack Johnson, said some students came to his office in tears of happiness after the announcement.
Uriah O’Terry is a sophomore at Sattler, and the first in his family to go to college. He said in past semesters finding the money for tuition was “a point of stress,” and he had to take out a loan. He’s happy for the change.
“I am being prepared for a life of effective Christian living without the burden of debt,” he said in an email. “So the way I pay for my ‘free’ college education is by serving Jesus and the people around me with the skills and knowledge that I have gained at Sattler.”
Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, also announced that in fall 2024 it would not charge tuition for Pennsylvania students whose families make under $70,000 a year. In fall 2023, Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, began offering free tuition to Indiana students whose families make less than $65,000. That program will continue next school year, now for families making less than $60,000.
Hope College in Holland, Michigan, is in its third year of a pilot program to offer free tuition. It is currently covering tuition for a small group of students who go through a character-based application as it tries to raise funds to cover more and more of its students.
“The reception has been a wide range of things from people who are inspired by it to people who think we’re totally crazy,” said Matthew Scogin, president of the college.
Hope asks students receiving free tuition to sign a covenant that they will give annually in any amount after graduation. “We went to this amazing line Jesus uses in Matthew 10:8, where he says, Freely you’ve received, now freely give. And we said, ‘Let’s see if we can apply that to our actual business model,’” said Scogin.
Sattler president Johnson wants the tuition-free model to encourage students to choose an educational institution where they will experience Christian formation without worrying about money. Most of Sattler’s freshman class this year are the first in their family to attend college, said Johnson.
“To create avenues for discipleship for young Christians is one of the church’s biggest tasks—to be really investing in these years,” said Johnson. “If our young people aren’t choosing to be discipled in these young years, some of us should be pulling our hair out [about] why people are choosing other alternatives.”
Sattler is calling its plan an “entrustment” model, “offering education in exchange for a student’s commitment to the principles of kingdom service and financial gratitude … using gospel concepts of generosity and service to solve the problem of student debt before it even begins.”
Sattler’s Johnson said his statistical modeling “showed we’d probably receive more money as an institution over time if we doubled down on generosity and gratitude, instead of billing an amount that’s usually discounted. … This isn’t certain, but I’m betting we will be better funded in the future because of this decision.”
Sattler—a school that started in 2016 and has a student body ranging between 60 and 80 students—could make it work, according to Johnson, because it has fixed costs, so additional students don’t add to expenses. Students still pay room and board, with subsidies in certain cases.
Willem de Ruijter, Geneva College’s vice president of enrollment and marketing, said in a statement that the school was “continuing to work towards making a rigorous Christian education accessible for all.” The school stated that “strong fiscal leadership and stewardship from boards and alumni” allowed it to offer the free tuition.
Christian higher education is experiencing both the best and worst of times. Some schools are seeing record enrollment, while more than 18 schools have closed since the pandemic. New York City’s only two evangelical colleges shuttered last year as their enrollments declined and debt rose.
Some Christian schools have already firmly established a no-tuition model. Undergraduate students at Moody Bible Institute have their tuition covered by donors, but the school has the students apply for federal aid. College of the Ozarks has a “tuition assurance scholarship” for its students, where they work their way through school in a work-study position, and donors cover any remaining costs.
The new no-tuition programs at Christian schools are popping up as states are also trying to establish more free-tuition programs. New York, Indiana, and Washington currently offer various versions of four-year tuition coverage for public universities, while a number of states are also covering tuition for community colleges.
John Aubrey Douglass, a researcher on higher education at University of California, Berkeley, is more skeptical of how these programs will work financially.
“The political movement for free tuition does not provide any significant plan on how to make up lost revenue,” Aubrey wrote in a 2020 article for International Higher Education. “Universities are like other organizations in society: If they lose significant income, there are consequences that can include reductions in access and in the number of courses offered, and rising student-to-faculty ratios.”
But the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research looked into such models for the Illinois governor in 2021 and found that the state’s offering of free tuition would more than cover the costs of the program through graduates’ higher earning potential and other spillover effects.
Christian colleges don’t have the tax dollars that state governments do, and don’t receive that increased tax revenue from graduates having higher earnings. And none of these schools are requiring post-graduation income sharing, an experimental model that can allow educational institutions not to charge tuition. But these institutions think they can make it work for theological reasons.
Sattler and Hope are trying to focus on a spirit of generosity through better alumni engagement from such programs. Sattler’s Johnson had looked at Hope’s pilot as a model for getting rid of tuition. Sattler’s program cites the same Bible verse as Hope, Matthew 10:8, to freely receive, freely give. Johnson and Hope’s president Scogin had a conversation this fall about the model and how it could work.
One critique of this model is that students won’t have “skin in the game” and might not perform as well academically. Johnson argues that students are still invested—not only with paying room and board but also with paying through their time.
Johnson himself was educated at the US Air Force Academy and has long thought about what service academies can model for Christian higher education. Like a service academy, Sattler is calling students to “kingdom-focused service” after they graduate, which can mean being a software developer or a missionary. Either way, he is betting that graduates would feel more involved in the institution—in giving, working at the school later, or serving on the board.
Hope’s Scogin acknowledged it’s “a model that’s uncertain. Although, in my view, the current model is even more uncertain because it’s breaking.”
Scogin said Hope could offer free tuition in its small pilot program because the school was in a “position of strength in terms of enrollment and budget.”
“God says this to Abraham—he blesses people to be a blessing,” Scogin said. “We’re charging students an extraordinary amount of money at literally the poorest point of their life. … Jesus creates this crazy upside-down economy, where he says it’s the poor and the lowly and the meek who are actually closest to God. And so we think Christians ought to be the ones pushing hardest on access to education.”
Additional reporting by Harvest Prude.