Christian Colleges Will Survive, but Change Is Coming

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.

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.

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Source: Christianity Today