Christian higher education is facing numerous challenges. The Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) conducted a study in collaboration with the Barna Group in 2017 that focused on the marketplace, the dynamics facing member institutions as well as the perceptions of Christian higher education. The study identified a number of actions that Christian higher education institutions need to do to remain or become sustainable.
ABHE recently has made board governance a priority. The association received a substantial grant last year and is in the process of enrolling board leadership cohorts from 48 institutions to take them through a rigorous board training and certification process. The first cohort is almost finished and Dr. Enlow hopes this training will be transformational for institutions.
Radical Demographic Shifts
The United States is seeing significant demographic changes in terms of race and ethnicity. It is anticipated that the current White majority will be well less than a majority in the United States in 10-15 years. The African American population will remain around 12 percent of the population while the Asian population will double from 3 percent to 6 percent. The biggest growth will be in the Hispanic population, which will be the largest of the pluralities.
Additionally, with the coming enrollment cliff, Christian institutions will need to shift to focus on recruiting older students instead of the traditional 18-year-old students.
A Shift in the Christian Landscape
It used to be a fairly accurate to say that the United States was a Christian nation since about 75 percent of citizens would have responded that they were a Christian on a survey. Researchers like Pew and Gallup have more or less clarified that when people answer those questions, they fall into one of three primary categories of Christians:
- Convictional Christians, who are defined by their convictional belief and behaviors, especially in their regular church attendance;
- Casual Christians, who attend church on special occasions (primarily Christmas and Easter); and
- Cultural Christians, who are individuals who would identify themselves on a survey as Christian because they don’t identify with another religion.
These three groups traditionally have been evenly divided at 25 percent apiece. However, now there is erosion in the numbers of casual Christians and cultural Christians. Many of these individuals have moved their affiliation to the group known as the “nones” (people who don’t identify with any religious affiliation). With that said, there is no erosion in individuals’ interest in spirituality; in fact, some would argue that interest in spirituality has increased.
Additionally, the convictional Christian group is not eroding. This group has remained steadily at 25 percent and even grown a little bit over the past 25-30 years.
In recent history, the convictional, casual and cultural Christians aligned from the standpoint of cultural and political coalitions as a voting block. Now, there’s a divergence between convictional Christians and the rest of Americans, thus politically and culturally marginalizing the convictional Christians. Furthermore, a coalition has emerged that includes the casual Christians, the cultural Christians and the nones; this group tends to be an ideological affinity group.
Paradigm Shift in Christian Education
There are two issues behind higher education’s and, in particular, Christian higher education’s reluctance to change. The first is the widely held perspective that education is inherently formational; it’s life in community. So education is not just about transmission of knowledge, but instead is transformational. The prevalent idea was the only way to achieve this transformation was through the traditional classroom; this is the mindset that has dominated Christian education.
The other issues is the startup costs to master online delivery platforms. The cost is both in equipment and professional development, and the $$$ isn’t small.
With that said, Dr. Enlow believes that because of the demographic realities and the perceptions of stakeholders about the purpose of higher education, it is critical for higher education to diversify its learning modalities. Colleges that are reluctant or refusing to diversify their delivery modalities will have a very narrow bandwidth in terms of who they will be able to serve. Colleges will have to think about students and parents “hacking education,” i.e., looking for the simplest, shortest, most convenient way to meet their goals instead of completing a traditional higher education curriculum. The schools that understand that and can diversify their delivery modalities to be seamless will be those that will be most effective.
In the sector of church ministry leadership preparation, historically individuals were prepared through experiencing a calling, attending school, getting credentialed and serving. That is no longer the case. The pattern now is serving in a church, and out of that service comes a sense of calling. From there comes a sense of needing education through attending school or training. People then consider credentialing, but this isn’t a requirement. Credentialing now tends to be more of a competency than a licensing level. This pattern is being seen in the mega-churches in which they are growing their own staff, who serve in the church. Out of that sense of serving emerges a reciprocated sense of calling. At this point, the desire training that is tailored to the situation emerges.
Dr. Enlow stressed that Christian schools must stop seeing this paradigm shift as a threat and instead embrace it as an opportunity. While it is a threat to the conventional model of full-time schooling, it’s also a vehicle to Christian colleges’ and universities’ mission.
Additionally, Christian higher education’s business model has been based on residential education. When Dr. Enlow was working in a higher educational institution setting, the only positive cash flow in the institution was from student housing so the business model was heavily predicated on residential student enrollment. The old model also assumed the need for a lot of subsidy. The typical college, at best, had 70 percent of a student’s education funded by tuition and fees while the remaining 30 percent was covered by gifts or loans.
That business model does not work anymore. Christian institutions need to come up with a business model that funds what is needed based on different assumptions of enrollment patterns, etc. In some ways, overhead is lower in these new opportunity areas. Additionally, there doesn’t have be these huge subsidies if these new modalities are done right.
Christian colleges and universities in general are seeing a change in focus. These institutions have traditionally prepared students for church occupations, such as pastors and missionaries; Bible studies are a crucial part in the preparation of these individuals.
However, many Christian colleges are now preparing individuals for ministerial occupations as well as marketplace helping professions. Because of this change in mission, the requirement to have Biblical and theological understanding at a high level would not be the same for a student who wants to be a public school teacher. Instead, students now are majoring in a subject such as business and then minoring in Bible.
Changing Nature of Liberal Arts
Many Christian institutions are liberal arts colleges. The initial concept for liberal arts institutions was that they would offer academic rigor, critical thinking skills, and intellectual fodder to prepare students to function highly and contribute significantly in a variety of situations. However, there has been a growing perception among the public that liberal arts institutions are not adequately preparing students for their first job or career.
This, however, is not the case. In reality, since World War II, higher education has become more and more focused on preparing individuals for jobs and careers with less emphasis on pure liberal arts. Christian colleges always have been pragmatic because of their small size. In fact, they may be considered even more professional colleges than the historical blue-blood liberal arts colleges. The majority of Christian institutions that would be historically identified as liberal arts institutions have students who are are enrolled in professional degree programs such as business, teacher education and sociology.
Two Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders
Dr. Enlow suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders:
- Ensure sustainability. Dr. Enlow believes that to be sustainable over the next 10 years, Christian higher education institutions need to get out of Title IV dependency. Related to that, leaders need to really monitor discounting. They also need to focus on differentiation by showcasing the institution’s unique selling proposition and ensuring its delivery. Finally, institutions need to diversify delivery modalities. These do not need to be silos – online vs. in-person delivery offerings, so you can only do one or the other. These need to be totally integrated, diversified delivery modalities.
- Focus on the governing board. These boards need to be high-functioning through becoming more agile and better informed. Every stakeholder is going to need to have an exceedingly well defined, mission-driven, brand promise and selling proposition. Both the board and the administration are going to need a high-level of convergent fiscal understanding of margin and contingency.
- Christian higher education faces major challenges through changing demographics such as race and ethnicity as well as the changing nature of students (from traditional 18-year-olds to older students).
- There is a shift in how individuals define themselves in relation to Christianity – convictional Christians, casual Christians and cultural Christians. These changing percentages will have deep cultural and political implications as well as a major effect on Christian institutions.
- The changing nature of how higher education is offered – from traditional classrooms to online education or a blend of traditional education and online education – will alter how Christian colleges and universities operate. Another factor will be the certification process. This will require Christian colleges and universities to develop a different business model in order to survive.
- Christian institutions are moving from primarily preparing pastors and missionaries to preparing professionals. This requires adapting how Biblical studies are offered.
- Christian institutions that are liberal arts institutions need to continue to showcase their work in preparing students for professions and careers. Public perception is that students graduating from these schools are not prepared for the workforce when, in fact, most graduates actually earn a professional degree that prepares them for working in business, education and other professions.
- Higher education leaders need to consider sustainability in moving forward. This needs to include differentiating their institution, finding sustainable ways to fund education and embracing different learning modalities.
- Christian institutional governing boards must be high-performing, agile and better informed in relation to a well-defined mission, sustainable finances and other governance issues.
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