Within weeks of the first COVID-19 cases appearing on American shores in the spring of 2020, open houses and graduation ceremonies were canceled, non-essential personnel were furloughed, international students were stranded, and those studying abroad were forced to rush home before borders closed. As states rapidly increased restrictions on gatherings, college leaders were forced to make difficult financial and safety decisions, often with limited information and little clarity about what the future might hold.
These leaders rose to meet the moment. In a matter of days, hundreds of classes were moved online as were on-campus resources, programs, and even student jobs.
Christian colleges and seminaries were battered just like other institutions of higher learning, but they have faced additional challenges all their own. For example, most Christian colleges’ average enrollment is in the low thousands, and their small size has made them particularly vulnerable to the economic impact of the virus. As President Beck Taylor of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, notes, unforeseen shifts in enrollment can be devastating for small, private colleges, as they tend to have smaller endowments to draw from during emergencies and are, as a result, heavily dependent on tuition.
The cancellation of open houses and campus tours took a toll on fall semester enrollment, as small colleges tend to rely on these in-person experiences to showcase the benefits of a close-knit campus community. “The backbone of a small college, secular or sacred, is having students come on campus and visit and explore,” says Alexander Jun, professor of higher education at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. “Small Christian colleges were already on shoestring budgets. I feel like some of these smaller Christian colleges are not unlike some of the small mom and pop restaurants in my local community—one or two natural disasters away from shutting their doors.”
The clear faith-based mission of Christian colleges and seminaries, however, and their focus on mentorship and community, has helped set them apart in a crowded higher education market. Leveraging that mission and that focus has been crucial in schools’ continued success. In the midst of all the pandemic’s challenges, leaders have recognized a great opportunity: a chance to make good on their schools’ Christian mission and identity. If there were ever a time to flex their Christian distinctives, that time is now.
For Caieligh Treash, a senior at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, it was her college’s distinctly Christian identity and sense of community that made her decide to return to campus. “While many things will change at Gordon, I’m grateful that the most important things will stay the same: the people, the mission, and the commitment to following Christ through all circumstances. It is for this reason that I am filled with hope,” she explains.
Serving student needs
Moving operations online is certainly the most visible step colleges have taken in the COVID era, but it was only one piece of the puzzle for Christian higher education institutions. They also carefully considered how to best care for a new slate of student needs that emerged as a result of the pandemic, a responsibility they take seriously.
Soon after Baylor University in Waco, Texas, made the decision to shift to online course instruction, for example, they created a comprehensive program—the Bear Care Program—that offered assistance to thousands of domestic and international undergraduate students. More than 300 staff members from across the university volunteered as Bear Care coaches, reaching out to students weekly to see if they needed any help adjusting to the stress of online education, being away from their peers, and trying to adapt to a college experience disrupted by COVID-19. They also helped students connect to Baylor resources providing academic, emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual support.
“The development of the Bear Care program was quite an accomplishment,” says Mark Bryant, director of international student and scholar services at Baylor. “Baylor’s leadership in supporting and advocating for this program as well as the staff who volunteered to add duties during an already stressful time period are evidence of the Baylor community’s commitment to students and their success, and a testament to the university’s caring Christian community.”
Colleges and seminaries have also been proactive in helping to provide housing options on campus to students who have nowhere else to go. “I think that every single one of our campuses found a way to care for vulnerable students, whether they were international students who couldn't go home, foster care students, or just students who didn't have a good place to go,” explains Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), which provides support and resources to over 175 partner institutions.
When we talked to Whitworth’s Beck Taylor in March 2020, the university had 39 students still living in its residence halls. The student tenants did have to remain socially distanced in accordance with state protocols, but Taylor didn’t want them to get lonely—so he threw them a party. “I’m doing a Zoom reception with those students so that we can at least try to find some community, to chat, laugh, play games, and do some silly things together. The ways that we’re attending to those students’ needs is, I think, particularly evident of the Christ-centered mission of Whitworth,” he said.
Leadership in a pandemic
Partying digitally with students living in the residence halls was part of Taylor’s efforts to maintain what he calls “pastoral presence” among Whitworth students and staff during a difficult season. Throughout the pandemic, Taylor hoped to be as visible and accessible as possible. “I have found myself communicating through any channel I possibly can, whether through social media or recorded videos that I send out to students and employees,” Taylor said. “Today I'm hosting a town hall for all employees via Zoom. I've found that my voice and my presence, and specifically my pastoral presence in this space, is very important right now.”
Students have noticed. Eric Anderson, a senior and resident hall advisor at Whitworth, has been impressed by the commitment he sees from the college administration to put student needs first. “It’s easy for students, even at a small Christian school, to think of the institution as basically uncaring, focused solely on self-preservation and public image,” he says. “And that could very well be true of other schools, but I can say with confidence that our leadership sacrificed time with their family, lost sleep thinking about how to best care for students, and prayed hard to discern the will of the Lord for our community.”
Phil Ryken, president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, emphasized the importance of taking the pandemic and its repercussions as seriously as possible. “Part of what helps people have that hope and encouragement is when they realize you're seeing the problem as seriously as it can possibly be seen,” he says. “If you don't do that, then people get alarmed because they don't see the appropriate level of response.”
To demonstrate this, Ryken and his team consistently strive to have answers to difficult or complex questions before those questions are even posed. “One thing that I’ve been saying is the thought that crosses your mind today is a question that somebody is going to ask you tomorrow. And that somebody is going to really be demanding an answer the day after that. So rather than thinking, Oh, we can’t worry about that right now, we need to think about that right away and start developing a view on that,” Ryken says.
One of the pressing questions that President Ryken has weighed in on is whether Wheaton will continue to offer robust online course options after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. “This season does not convince us that there's an online future for Wheaton College undergraduate education,” he says.
Like many other Christian colleges and seminaries, Wheaton prides itself on the experience students have on campus, growing academically and spiritually alongside peers and mentors. “We’re a unique institution. We have a particular calling to raise up leaders for the church and society. This requires a certain investment of resources, and a certain kind of life-on-life discipleship,” Ryken explains. “It doesn’t matter how well online education goes for us this semester, we believe we are anti-gnostic. We believe in embodied, human communities.”
In Ryken’s view, online course delivery simply cannot offer the same benefits as the residential campus experience. “There is a quality of discussion, an opportunity for mentorship, community life, and spiritual formation that takes place in a residential community that is irreplaceable. It can only be attenuated even through the best of digital delivery.”
President Ryken is not alone. A major thread in our conversations with students and staff is that the pandemic experience has only magnified their zeal and gratitude for the on-campus community experience at their schools.
When Isaac Liskowski, a senior at Moody Bible Institute, found out that campus would be reopening this fall, he was thrilled. “Living on campus at Moody has completely changed my life, and the Christian community there is like none I have ever experienced before.”
“The absence of face-to-face community was felt immediately, and it was something I realized I had been taking for granted,” said Daniel Bennett, professor of political science at John Brown University. “I realized how much I value meeting with students before and after class, discussing readings and issues beyond class in my office, and cultivating relationships with people who are in that stage of life where they’re learning their gifts and discovering their callings. I’m at John Brown University primarily to invest in students. Online learning limits those experiences dramatically.”
Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, where Ronald Matthews serves as president, has built a reputation for its award-winning online programs. They consistently rank among the best in the state. The university has wholly embraced the challenges and benefits that come with digital delivery, including the challenge of translating Eastern’s close-knit community online. All the same, despite relative success and positive student feedback, Matthews does not feel that online education will ever be able to replicate or replace the faith-based campus experience. “So many students have talked about our weekly chapel services and how much they miss our community,” he says. “There's still a hunger for being together incarnationally, you know—actually sensorialy together, people to people.”
Love of neighbor
While continuing to serve the needs of the campus community, college and seminary leaders are also striving to remain attentive to the needs of their local and regional communities. Hoogstra reports that numerous CCCU-partner health and nursing programs donated their protective gear to local hospitals, health providers, and emergency personnel. Azusa Pacific introduced an innovative partnership with Pasadena City College to address California’s nursing shortage. At Baylor University, over one hundred parents of Chinese international students pooled together enough money to send thousands of masks to campus for Baylor staff to distribute to the local community. The Experiential Learning Commons at Baylor Libraries also used their 3D printers to make surgical mask tension-relief bands for the health care professionals at the Family Health Center in Waco.
“I feel like this is an absolutely critical opportunity for Christian higher education, and Christians in particular, to rise up and demonstrate what it means to love our neighbors,” notes Azusa Pacific’s Jun. “I feel like the Lord's giving us this opportunity to respond in a way that Christians and Christian higher ed ought to, a way that can bring glory to God.”
According to Jun, the act of loving one’s neighbor in the COVID era must include Christian colleges publicly denouncing the racist assumptions being made about Asian Americans and their relationship to the coronavirus. “Attributing the spread of a disease to foreigners is nothing new,” Jun says, referring to the Spanish flu and Japanese encephalitis. “Asian students, including international students from China, may think twice about certain institutions if they do not make a stand on this. They might be wondering, How could you be so bold about your faith and not say anything about this?’”
The L word: Layoffs
At Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Service Learning Center led by Jeffrey Bouman and Andrew Haggerty is eager to continue finding innovative ways to serve the community, but the short-term future of their department and its services is unclear. The vast majority of the center’s work is conducted in-person at partner organizations and schools, and their popular service-learning trips have been canceled along with all university-sponsored travel.
Haggerty admits he cannot yet predict, semester by semester, what the center will be doing. “The work of our office is not designed for a socially distant or online reality. But we are committed to supporting the personal and professional development of our students, helping our community partners fulfill their goals, and providing meaningful service-learning opportunities for Calvin students. We just don’t know what that will look like yet.” The Service Learning Center has been conducting “Zutoring” (Zoom tutoring) sessions with local K–12 students who they used to meet at a local library for homework help and mentorship, and they hope it will be possible to find other new ways to provide the help and support the Grand Rapids community has come to rely on.
Haggerty and the student staff at Calvin’s Service Learning Center are not alone. Numerous college programs and departments exist to serve in ways that may not be possible in the near future—programs for study abroad, programs that recruit and support international students, event services, athletics, food services, and domestic and international missions—and if enrollment remains low, the students and staff working in these departments will continue to be particularly vulnerable.
Because most Christian colleges are small and heavily tuition dependent, should COVID-19 result in a continued drop in enrollment, it is almost certain that the trend of layoffs will continue. This keeps college administrators and their staff pinned in an excruciating position, as the full effects of COVID-19 on enrollment may not be felt for some time.
President Taylor offered hope to his faculty and staff: “What I can reassure employees of is that we are preparing for any contingency. We are putting employees first—we want to care for our employees.” Even so, he anticipates having to make difficult decisions in the future. “Like almost any school within the CCCU, we are tuition driven,” Taylor continues. “If students don’t show up and pay tuition, we’re going to be in trouble financially.”
“The potential economic impact of what's happening with the coronavirus threatens the very existence of our Christ-centered colleges and universities,” President Ryken of Wheaton College remarked. “Already across Christ-centered higher education, we have had lots of institutions that were below sustainable economic thresholds.”
“Just going online has a cost,” Shirley Hoogstra told USA Today. “If you are a residential college, you have to figure out what would be a fair repayment to students who are no longer living on campus.”
Seminaries that are heavily reliant on financial support from churches are also in a difficult spot, as many small churches are now themselves financially struggling. Bruce Ashford, provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, anticipated difficult days ahead for Southern Baptist seminaries. “COVID-19 is going to do untold damage to our small churches, and 90 percent of Southern Baptist churches are small churches. Many aren’t going to make it. And they’re not going to be able to give to the pot that then pays Southeastern.”
Many colleges applied for and received relief from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law in late March. The law allocated around $14 billion in funds for higher education, distributed incrementally to colleges based on student enrollment. Small colleges could receive millions if they demonstrated significant unmet needs as a result of COVID-related expenses, so long as 50 percent of their benefits went toward emergency student grants. Wheaton College received $2 million, Whitworth University received nearly $3 million, and Azusa Pacific University received over $5 million from the CARES act. Though these allocations may not mean much at a large university, for these small colleges they proved to be a life raft, allowing them to remain open.
Hoogstra predicts that access to financial aid will be key in recruiting and retaining students in the years to come. “If we can get students enough support financially,” she insists, “they will want to return to college.”
Hope built on nothing less
Though the post-COVID landscape remains uncertain for Christian colleges and seminaries, campus leaders are looking to what is certain to create and sustain peace in these unprecedented times: the unwavering faithfulness of God.
“This is the era that God has given us. This is the calamity that he's put in our hands,” Ashford says. “In John's version of the Great Commission, Jesus told his disciples that when you go out into the world, you're going to face opposition. He was saying to his disciples, ‘Just embrace the moment. Embrace the task that I've given you whatever comes your way, and minister in the face of it.’”
“As a Christian, I place my hope in the Lord and in the sovereignty of God. That doesn't mean that I like what's happening. That doesn't mean I'm not frustrated and angry at times. I have a lot of questions, but that's the human part of me,” said President Taylor of Whitworth University. As he grappled with shutting down the campus, he heard a timely sermon that prompted a change in his mindset. “I'm trying to maintain a posture of expectation. Maybe we shouldn't be praying for restoration, but rather we should be praying for healing,” he says. “Maybe the old normal isn't what we want, as comforting, reassuring, and familiar as that might be. Maybe in fact, it's something new.”
Ready or not, Christian colleges and seminaries have taken their first steps this fall on a journey that will test their strength. “We talk about organizations being spiritually, mentally, and physically strong—and individuals within that—but we didn't have to test that [before],” Hoogstra explains. Leaders met the immediate challenge and rose to the occasion with impressive speed, but new financial pressures and more difficult decisions are sure to come. In those moments, leaders will have to consider again what it means to be a Christian college.
Kevin Singer is a freelance journalist and PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University, where he is a Research Associate for the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), as well as Co-Founder and Director of Neighborly Faith.
Kassidy Hall is a senior and international studies major at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and Marketing Coordinator for Neighborly Faith.