Challenges and Opportunities Facing Christian Higher Education

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World Magazine recently noted that a 2001 prediction by, then CCCU president Dr. Bob Andringa, was coming to pass.  Dr. Andringa believed that by the first quarter of the new century, “25% of Christian colleges will have closed; 50% will be just hanging on, and 25% will be thriving.”  A 2012 follow-up report conducted by Bain & Co. indicated that 36% of CCCU schools are sustainable, 32% are at risk and 32% are unsustainable. (Sophia Lee and Angelu Lu, Salt and Light on Campus, http://www.worldmag.com, May 3, 2015).  Whether this prediction ultimately comes to pass, it is evident the next decade will be filled with uncertainty and significant change.

To add to the uncertainty, a June 14, 2014, Chronicle of Higher Education article reported that Moody’s Investor’s Service had issued a negative outlook for higher education noting the following pressures:

  • Growth in tuition revenue remains stifled by affordability concerns and steep competition for students.
  • State financing of higher education will increase, on average, just 3 to 4 percent—not enough to meet the growth in expenses.
  • One in 10 public and private colleges is suffering “acute financial distress” because of falling revenues and weak operating performance.
  • Public colleges will begin to feel the impact of underfunded pensions and health benefits for retirees.
  • Most public universities and many private ones will be unable to achieve a 3-percent annual growth rate in operating revenue, Moody’s benchmark for sustainable financing at a time of low inflation.

Wall Street Journal prognosticator former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers along with futurist authors Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil in their book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think (2012), paint a dramatic shift in world systems that are governed by “abundance” rather than “scarcity.”  With the rapid advancement of technology, employment opportunities are projected to be dramatically different than those with which we are familiar, while job availability as we know it in the present day is expected to be scarce.  What Diamandis and Kurzweil do not address, however, is how the human need for meaningful work will be treated, and most importantly, the need of humankind to have a relationship with our Creator.  Christian higher education institutions are positioned well to address a societal need for individuals with high moral and ethical standards.  Besides, our students enter the world with the vital link to the ultimate reason for life, namely a vibrant relationship with our Creator.

Needless to say, higher education and the role it plays in our world is undergoing significant change.  The need for Christian higher education is even more critical to our future given the projected technological variations in the coming decades.  Educational delivery systems, accountability structures, demands of society and culture as well as the perceptions of educational value and suspect cost structures are just a few of the ways the landscape is challenged.  Christian institutions of higher education face these challenges in addition to a society that is increasingly critical, if not adversarial, toward our Christian values and heritage.  Any number of statistics from the Barna Group and others note that even our Christian young people see the Church and denominationalism with much less enthusiasm than in the past.  Considering the significant challenges, one might ask the following questions: Is there a future for Christian higher education?  Is there cause for optimism?  My answer is a resounding, “Yes.”  The need for strong Christian higher education has never been more important.

In a progressively automated and secularized society, Christian higher education has the opportunity to distinguish itself by imparting Godly wisdom through the integration of faith with learning, while other institutions focus primarily on the delivery of knowledge.  We have the opportunity to be part of God’s great movement among humanity in this age.  I believe Christian higher education must be on the forefront of delivering this type of wisdom.  As Christian educators, we must prepare students to be Christ’s “hands and feet” in our hurting world.  Personally and professionally, we should reaffirm our Christian heritage, holding fast to the values and ideals of our Christian faith, while seeking every effort to bring a relevant faith to the culture in which we live.

As we look to the future, we must seize opportunities for increased collaboration among like-minded entities, with the goal of maximizing strengths rather than duplicating services.  We must develop vibrant fundraising efforts that demonstrate stewardship and return on investment.  We must determine appropriate cost strategies and maximize student tuition revenue while ensuring that facilities and energy systems are efficient, sustainable and well maintained.  In today’s global environment it is necessary that we understand our market position beyond the scope of our local or regional constituencies.  We must learn to live within a global environment, helping our students prepare for the rapid change in technology and information sharing, while also ensuring they are able to navigate the uncertain times with a Christian worldview.

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