In May, Gordon College announced it would no longer have a history major as a result of its restructuring. Two months earlier, Wheeling Jesuit University reduced their programs down to eight, eliminating non-professional programs and even theology. These are just two recent responses to the economic challenges currently facing nearly all Christian institutions of higher learning. Across the country, as small religious schools are in a struggle for survival, they are cutting programs and closing their doors. The distress beacon for Christian higher education is currently blinking.
Christianity and higher education have a long, shared history. In the earliest European universities, most of the faculty were members of the clergy and many of the students were too. Some of the great Christian thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, John Wycliffe, and Martin Luther, were also professors. Many of the premier institutions in our country also began with religious missions. The Puritans and their descendants in the northeast took education and religion very seriously, as did the Jesuits. Over time many of the oldest schools in America drifted away from intentional religious integration. Many of the current Christian universities, which arose to meet demand for religious education, were founded in the 20th century.
Though people like to talk about the “culture wars,” Christian colleges today are more endangered by economic forces. Higher education is increasingly dividing into winners and losers as the number of thriving schools is shrinking and a handful grow in prestige, enrollment, and endowments. Small colleges, in particular, are hurting because they are more tuition-driven and less able to weather the storms of economic cycles. Endowments help offset economic seasons and reduce tuition, but smaller and younger colleges have smaller endowments, in part because many donors are alumni.
Harvard has been around for almost 400 hundred years. My school, Palm Beach Atlantic University, is celebrating its 50th year right now. All over America, there are Christian colleges like it, founded in the 20th century, with enrollments of under 5,000, where you can learn koine Greek alongside chemistry and composition.
What difference can these small, young, Christian schools make in the world? Legislatures and parents are increasingly reluctant to fund liberal arts education. Many colleges are cutting traditional programs and moving to job training and online learning. Some wonder if the liberal arts will survive the 21st century. But many CEOs come from liberal arts backgrounds and prestigious colleges and wealthy families are unwilling to abandon the liberal arts. Rather than becoming irrelevant, the liberal arts are becoming the province of elites, as average Americans are being prepared for employment rather than enlightenment, trained to work more than to think.
Much of Christian higher education is committed to the liberal arts, which is an opportunity for distinction. We live in a world in need of more, not less, critical thinking, and where people are hungry to be seen as more than their paychecks. Christian colleges teach business and rhetoric, life sciences and Latin, marketing and metaphysics. Students are prepared for employment while being grounded in critical thinking and expanding their worldviews. Christian colleges and universities can and should reinforce rather than run from our commitment to liberal arts education and should strive to make it more accessible to more people.
Christian colleges can certainly reflect the weaknesses of our existing culture. They can sometimes be insular and reinforce divisions, especially over tertiary matters of faith. But Christian colleges are uniquely positioned to combat the divisions plaguing our religious and political cultures. As it says in Psalm 133, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” At Christian colleges, students can learn about the history, breadth, and the beauty of our tradition while living in intentional, often ecumenical, community. Students can engage serious theological questions among others with different opinions and backgrounds but shared central beliefs. The church needs more leadership with that kind of perspective.
Despite challenges and weaknesses, Christian colleges can participate in the work of justice. The country is increasingly divided into winners and losers, often geographically. We can invest in the middle of America through education. And, if we would invest, there are endless possibilities for shaping a campus to be a better reflection of God’s kingdom. In 2018, Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins, which will enable it to be a “need blind” institution and admit and educate anyone without considering tuition. Imagine if the Christian community funded our universities well enough to make them “need blind,” or if we had a commitment to lowering student debt.
Christian colleges often already have scholarships for the children of pastors and missionaries. Imagine if we further expanded our vision to establish scholarship funds for foster and adopted children. Consider the global effects of expanded funds available to help international Christians attend higher education here. How might that help us to better understand the inclusive and global nature of the church?
Today, Christian higher education stands between obsolescence and opportunity. Like other small, liberal arts schools, and much of middle-class America, they are losing ground to a handful of increasingly wealthy players.
What will happen if we lose Christian colleges? We won’t lose the ability to have well-educated Christians, but we will lose classrooms where students are encouraged to think deeply and for themselves with faith as a central part of the conversation. We’ll lose campuses where people learn to live together in Christian community while engaging the world and its ideas. And we’ll lose the opportunity to use Christian colleges to testify to kingdom of God. Holding on to these places will require that we support Christian higher education with transformative thinking and funding.