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Christian Colleges Will Survive, but Change Is Coming

Business and tech students are forcing the hand of higher education.

Christian Colleges Will Survive, but Change Is Coming

Business and tech students are forcing the hand of higher education.

The Great Recession saw students at Christian schools increasingly turn to majors that prepared them for the marketplace rather than the ministry. Those students became adults beautifully adept at intertwining faith into all aspects of their professional and private lives. This new economic downturn may spur the development of another way forward.

When Emma Lown entered Lancaster Bible College as a freshman, she knew she wanted to serve God through her vocation, but she did not want to directly work for a church. And even though she enrolled in one of the top Bible colleges in the country, her primary goal wasn’t spiritual growth. In the end, Lown pursued a degree in graphic design.

“When I first chose Lancaster Bible College, I wasn't thinking of going to college to grow in my faith,” said Lown, now a senior. “I was more thinking I'm going to college to get a degree to further my professional career.”

Lown’s decision to pursue a secular career path over a more ministry-minded one even while studying at a Bible college is a perfect distillation of the findings from a 2018 Barna Group study, “What’s Next for Christian Higher Education? How Christian Colleges and Universities Can Prepare for the Future.”

Among its many conclusions, the 18-month study showed that students at Christian colleges and universities are increasingly choosing secular careers such as business administration and teaching over careers in youth ministry or church administration. And, like students attending secular colleges and universities, they place spiritual growth low on their list of priorities when making their college plans.

These findings surprised David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and author of four books examining cultural and generational trends as they relate to the church. Typically in Barna’s social research, he said, Christians, especially evangelicals, stand in contrast to mainstream society. They have different values and different political leanings. And yet, in planning for college and career, they are making choices using the same criteria as their secular peers.

“It was quite revealing,” Kinnaman said in an interview. “It’s one of those few areas where evangelical Christians just don’t seem to have that much differentiation from the general population. . . . They see moral and spiritual development as important, but not as the best reason to pursue a college education.”

Economic security and the rise of STEM degrees

Among students 19 and younger who were expecting to attend a Christian college or university, Barna’s study found science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to be the most popular academic field, with 31% of students planning to earn a STEM degree. Health (20%); business, management, and communication (18%); education (18%); and visual arts (13%) were also in the top five.

A mere 8% of Christian prospective students surveyed said they were considering a degree in ministry. Among those Christians who specifically identified as evangelicals, only 19% were planning to pursue a ministry-specific career.

“Then the recession hit. Whereas before, the assessment of one’s college choices was about amenities and then, eventually, pricing, it came to be all about post-graduation life. In other words: job placement.”

Enlow and others in Christian higher education cite various reasons for their students increasingly choosing more traditional marketplace careers over those tied to ministry, but all say the trend seemed to ramp up as a result of the Great Recession of 2007–2009.When the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE)—the largest Christian college accrediting association in the US—was formed in the 1940s, Bible colleges focused solely on preparing students for vocational Christian ministry at local churches. Since the 1970s, there has been a steady evolution toward offering a broader selection of career-minded majors at Bible colleges, says Ralph Enlow, former president of the ABHE, who commissioned the Barna study. In the 1980s and 1990s, many Christian schools such as Biola University and North Central University even left the ABHE entirely, seeking to adopt a liberal-arts university model.

“What [Barna’s] research validated was that the big driver of motivation to go to college, in general, in North America is economic security,” Enlow said. “That’s been the dominant theme at least since the Great Recession for the American public in terms of what they think the purpose of higher education is.”

Research by William Tibbetts, dean of the college of business and technology at North Central University in Minneapolis, bears this out. Tibbetts is currently pursuing a doctorate of business administration, and his dissertation analyzes a multi-case study on small, private liberal arts colleges, most of which are faith-based, that saw a growth in enrollment during the ten-year period of recovery following the recession.

“In the ’90s,” Tibbetts says, “universities were about investing in underground bowling allies, multiple Olympic-size pools, and student unions that would give the Taj Mahal a run for its money. It was all about appealing to the student experience.

“Then the recession hit. Whereas before, the assessment of one’s college choices was about amenities and then, eventually, pricing, it came to be all about post-graduation life. In other words: job placement.”

The economic decline from the recession, Tibbetts continues, led prospective students and their parents to become particularly price sensitive and to demand degrees that pay. The Obama administration launched online tool called the College Scorecard in 2015 that helped college-bound students more easily assess the quality of institutions of higher learning based on cost, graduation rates, rate of student-loan defaults, average amount of money borrowed, and post-graduation job placement rates, which helped to establish this solidly consumer mindset.


Many student-consumers came to feel that “degrees that pay” specifically meant “degrees in business and the sciences.” According to Tibbetts’s examination of the National Center for Education Statistics 2017 report, “Digest of Education Statistics,” interest in STEM degrees increased dramatically during the recession: the number of degrees granted in programs related to health professions went up a staggering 148%. The number of biology and biomedical sciences degrees increased by 61%. Degrees in science technologies increased 48%; in computer sciences, 35%. The number of business degrees also grew, with a 16.8% increase since 2007. Traditional liberal arts degrees saw a corresponding decline over the same period, with the number of English and literature studies degrees falling 22%, education degrees 18%, and philosophy and religious studies degrees 15%.

“The drop in liberal arts–related degrees and the increase in STEM and business degrees during a recession,” Tibbetts explains, “is related to [the arts’ perceived lower] potential earning power post-graduation.” That pressure to choose a career with high earning power was felt by all students, including those in Christian schools.

Changing course

North Central, the school Tibbetts calls home, was founded in 1930 in Minneapolis as a Bible institute. It boasts four colleges: business and technology, arts and sciences, fine arts, and church leadership. Two of these, the colleges of fine arts and church leadership, offer traditional ministry degrees, such as worship arts and missions.

Tibbetts started teaching at North Central in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession, and soon after he arrived on campus, he witnessed the turning away from ministry degrees that would become the subject of his research. In 2009, the university added a number of majors to the offerings—at its college of business and technology, for example—and student enrollment jumped 200%.

It is no surprise that now North Central and other Christian schools like it are focusing on developing these majors.

“[North Central] made a significant investment into promoting marketplace undergraduate and graduate degrees, adding new faculty and quickly moving these same degree programs online,” Tibbetts said. “The university is even developing a new $57 million academic building that will house an innovation lab for business and technology majors as well as a state-of-the-art science lab.”

In a similar vein, Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, announced in May 2020 that it will be opening a business school, thanks to a $22.2 million gift that provides endowment funds to support a dean and faculty members for the new school. “We are delighted and honored to be a part of this effort and believe that Calvin will create a truly great school of business that will demonstrate that business skills are gifts from God and are used to help bring His Kingdom,” wrote the anonymous donor in a press release.


Equipping versus educating

Matt Rawski, a junior at North Central, is set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and plans to go on to a master’s degree in strategic leadership. In high school, Rawski had assumed he would enter the ministry. After he graduated, however, he felt called to pursue a degree in business. He said his faith will be central to his job, though, wherever he lands.

“One of my professors told me that in the marketplace ‘our work is our witness,’ meaning that the quality of our work is a way we represent who Jesus is to our coworkers,” he said. “I also get to bring faith to my job by loving my coworkers and by shining the love, joy, and peace that the Holy Spirit gives me.”

The secular/sacred divide, Tibbets explains, doesn’t actually exist. Quoting 1 Corinthians 10:31, he emphasizes the first word: “Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.” In this light, the move toward more “secular” careers doesn’t mean much.

“If what you do allows you to love God and love others according to his word—whether you’re a marketing director, teacher, backhoe driver, barista, or pastor—you’re good to go,” he says.

Philip Dearborn, who succeeded Enlow as ABHE’s president in July, agrees that the pendulum swing from the sole focus on ministry preparation of Lancaster Bible’s early days to the broader focus on career development of today is healthy from a missional perspective. “The Great Commission calls all people to go and make disciples,” he explains. “It doesn’t say, ‘according to your job description.’”

Christian institutions must prepare their students for more than just their career path.

“Of course we become equipped for jobs. But that’s not the final point of university education,” says Cornelius Plantinga, Calvin’s president emeritus. “The reason is that as Christian people we shall still have to ask what those jobs themselves are for. How will the job I’m preparing for serve God by serving other people?”

Preparing for an unknown future

Dearborn insists that Christian institutions must prepare their students for more than just their career path because career paths often change.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a survey of 9,000 men and women who ranged in age from 32 to 38 in 2017–2018 showed they had already held an average of 8.2 jobs over the course of their adult lives.

“It really begs the question: Which job are we preparing students for?” Dearborn said. “Our perspective, and I think it’s a very healthy perspective, is yes, we will provide you with requisite skills to prepare you for the job force, but recognize that regardless of context, you’re called to minister. You’re called to serve in the local church. You’re called to make disciples and to display Christ regardless of your occupational context.”


Dearborn points to his years at Lancaster Bible, where, he said, staff have always intentionally added another dimension to the curriculum by showing there is something more to work than just a paycheck. Business administration students at Lancaster were required to take a course on the theology of wealth during his time there. Students studying social work took a course on the theology of suffering. Students also learned a theology of work.

“Work, this concept of doing a job, is something God created us to do,” Dearborn said. “Adam was charged with a job, and that was before sin entered. The very concept of work is God’s design. And he didn’t quantify ‘Well, this is secular work and this is sacred work.’ It’s work.’”

Tibbetts feels interpreting the Barna study’s findings to suggest there is a disassociation of higher education with spiritual and moral development among Christian students is “slightly misleading,” noting that students attending a Christian college or university have expectations of spiritual growth that other students might not have. By choosing to attend a Christian university, they have already demonstrated they place an importance on spiritual growth, even as they pursue a marketplace degree.

For example, he notes, every student at North Central, in every major, is trained in theology, Bible study techniques, and spiritual development. They also all graduate with a minor in Christian studies.

Kinnaman admits that many of the college goals students mentioned in the Barna survey, goals such as “discover who you are” and “learn how to make a difference in the world,” could be seen as desire for spiritual growth, even if spirituality or faith are not directly stated in those goals.

Rawski offers a student’s view. He is adamant that one of his favorite aspects of his time at North Central is the spiritual wisdom he’s gained from his professors.

“I constantly learn what being a man of God looks like in the marketplace through their example,” he says. “I see this as one of the unique advantages of attending a Christian university verses a secular one. I am learning values that will stick with me through my lifetime—not just knowledge.”

Competing to stay alive

With the trend of Christian students choosing to train for secular jobs ever climbing, Christian colleges and universities find themselves in tighter competition with traditional secular institutions of higher education when it comes to student recruitment. Dearborn suggests that Christian institutions need to better highlight what sets them apart from secular ones in the college experience they provide.


“You can get a business degree anywhere, but we’re going to give you [a business degree and] 30 credits of Bible theology so you understand the narrative of God and how you fit into that narrative,” he says. “We’re going to help you in your spiritual walk. We’re going to help you understand the important role that the local church plays and how you’re to engage with that, and how you’re to go and make disciples. That is fundamentally a different experience than you’ll get at a state university.”

Tibbetts says it is critical they continue to highlight their holistic approach of discipleship and education but stresses that they should similarly highlight their record of career development and job placement in their promotional materials. Both aspects of education are important, and he worries that Christian institutions that continue to primarily focus on spiritual development as the only outcome for their students could struggle. Emphasizing that Christian schools are uniquely suited to foster both aspects of education can give them the edge in attracting prospective students.

“It’s the full package,” Tibbetts says, “and it’s what employers want.”

Finding the silver lining

As we find ourselves in another economic downturn, one that Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell calls “without modern precedent,” Americans are once again reassessing how they spend, save, and invest their money. This is reshaping numerous aspects of our economy, including higher education.

The results of this reshaping, Kinnaman says, could be positive. “I think it’s going to force some really innovative thinking about preparing people for a world that is not the world we wish it was, and I’m hopeful about that.”

Dearborn, too, is confident ABHE schools can weather the storm. “I think we’re positioned well to continue these conversations and focus on training our students to love God, to love others, and to fulfill that Great Commission of going forth and making disciples,” he says. “That call is still as active as it was 2,000 years ago.”

Lown, who is set to graduate in December, says there is a lot of fear among college seniors who are wondering if there will even be jobs available when they receive their diplomas. She has accepted the fact that the economic downturn will likely last well past the day she starts sending out her resume. All the same, she is confident that her God-given skills and passions, as well as her experience at Lancaster Bible, will help her endure the challenges to come.

“As a student, it's just so important to hold on to hope,” Lown said. “[God has] given us this gift of time to learn as much as we can and to lean into our professors more and grow as much as we can so that one day, depending on the economy and according to God's will, we can go into the workforce and seek to glorify him with the skills he's given us.”


Moving forward

Tibbetts lays out several steps Christian colleges and universities can take to succeed as they emerge from the other side of the current economic challenges.

The first step is to aggressively determine how to make Christian higher education more equitable. “They need to educate more people, not just the 35 percent of those in the US who earn a bachelor’s degree,” he said.

Low-income students make up a sizable portion of those unable to earn a bachelor’s degree. According to a 2017 Lumina Foundation report, low-income students could not afford 95 percent of colleges. Two- and four-year public institutions miss the affordability threshold by an average of $8,000 annually. Private and nonprofit institutions, which includes most Christian higher education institutions, miss the affordability threshold by an average of $16,000 annually. But Christian colleges and universities must find a way to make themselves more accessible to these groups. “Otherwise,” said Tibbets, “the battle for new students among institutions will continue to be a bloodbath, with the winners being those with greater financial bandwidth.”

Another step Christian higher education institutions must take, Tibbetts said, is to determine their “risk appetite” as they set new goals and work to achieve them. By clearly defining its risk appetite—the amount and type of risk that it is prepared to take on—a school can work out a reasonable balance between uncontrolled innovation and excessive caution.

“This could include investing into degree and certificate programs with price points that appeal to an entirely new demographic of students or investing into new creative modalities and platforms of knowledge sharing or creating partnerships with for-profits in the area of training and development,” Tibbetts said.

It is also important to dump the five-year planning strategy that is popular in education today, he said. A real-time strategy is a term in the computer gaming world where players engage simultaneously instead of taking turns. Players use their own resources toward the simple goal of winning. Each player’s strategy must continually evolve as resources change and the context of the game changes as other players make moves, Tibbetts says.

“Similarly, higher education institutions need to do the same thing,” he adds. “Such a planning strategy is fluid and flexible, and requires ongoing assessment of external possibilities, internal capabilities, continuous communication, and quick responses.”

Practically, he says, this is implemented through the creation of dashboards with key performance indicators for all important external and internal variables. Most colleges typically focus solely on internal key performance indicators, he adds. These could include the number of applications, deposits, and enrollments. External variables that must be closely monitored include high school graduation rates, demographics, unemployment rates, and inflation, among many others.


“Often, colleges will look at some of these external variables but they do it when it's too late,” Tibbetts says. “As an organization, they need to be ahead by being able to predict future behavior of consumers because of these variables.”

A real-time strategy approach, he says, would include more viewpoints in upper-level strategic meetings. Representatives from student development, alumni, staff, and faculty should be included.

“Have these meetings frequently, consistently asking, ‘What are we doing? What do we need to be doing? What do we need to stop doing?’” he says. “All of this is done in respect to the dashboards and the university mission.”

Tibbetts also suggested taking the opportunity created by the pandemic to put even more effort into developing online education. The programs that will survive, he says, will be those that can virtually provide the feel of a residential collegiate community, with traditions included as well as classes. Also, since community colleges often thrive during economic downturns, Tibbetts thinks Christian colleges and universities should streamline the process of transferring credits.

“Finally, schools need to recognize that the game and rules have changed,” he says. “Assumptions need to be more fluid today than they were yesterday in higher education.”

If today’s economic situation inspires the kind of profound and welcome change that the Great Recession did, the dawn ahead may yet be a bright one.


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