Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Future of Christian Universities

I was thinking this weekend about how Christian colleges might strategize for the future. More than one threat is converging on us:
  • Massive demographic shifts are coming. These will be especially difficult for midwestern colleges and universities. 2025 is forecasted to see around a 15% drop in college age students.
  • Part of such demographic shifts is a diversification of the population, meaning that the typical evangelical college is in serious trouble.
  • Students are leaving high school with one or more years of college credit. My daughter will graduate from high school this year with an associate's degree (=around 60 credit hours). This fact means that even if they come to you, they will be with you for a significantly shorter period of time.
  • Students have lots of less expensive options and the value proposition of a more expensive Christian college is not clear to them or their parents.
  • The online market is saturated. It's no longer enough to go online. There has to be a reason to choose you among the many online options. 
  • Satellite campuses also seem on the decline.
  • My pastor, Steve Deneff, has predicted a backlash against evangelicals whenever the Trump presidency ends. We have just seen the biggest "blue wave" since Watergate. Unless the situation changes, we should expect a similar wave in the Senate in 2020. This dynamic probably does not bode well for Christian colleges associated with evangelicalism.
  1. Only make essential replacements. By all means don't panic! Nevertheless, the next 7 years are years to prepare for the Mariana Trench in demographic decline that is coming. There may be some good years coming in the meantime. So use retirements and natural departures to contract naturally in preparation.
  2. Diversify. Find ways to hire people and bring students who broaden your audience. Do so on every level--student, faculty, administration, top leadership. I've seen some great movement in this direction at Indiana Wesleyan where I work.
  3. Expand or move into graduate programs, especially 3+2 programs. If they are coming for fewer years in undergraduate programs, find seamless ways to keep them into graduate programs. Again, the KERN program at IWU where I work has done this magnificently.
  4. Make your value proposition clear. What is your distinctive? What are your faculty's superpowers? What is your region? What is your specific Christian tradition--what flavor of Christianity is your school? What is your identity or identities? What is your online distinctive? Build on what you have!
  5. Make it less expensive for as many students as possible. If you have a clear identity, you may be able to find donors who like it and are willing to give to it. If the government stops giving federal loans to students in Christian colleges, we may need some huge endowments to increase scholarships. Possibly start with certain pockets of students.
  6. Adopt a "Christian host" model. This approach might be easier for the Wesleyan tradition than some others, but I consider my own college a place where, as long as you are civil, anyone is welcome. The beliefs of the host university are clear, but you will be treated with respect if you are an atheist student. Professors obviously must be believers with a living faith, but we can have professors who respect the Wesleyan host without full agreement on every doctrine. And willingness to live within community ethos is acceptable, even if one's conscience is freer. 
So those are some of my ideas on how Christian universities can continue to thrive despite changing times. 

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Good ideas.