Christian Universities Need a Reset

(Gospel Coalition) Imagine the Christian college industry as a poorly played game of Risk.

My son loses to me every time because he commits too many troops to the attack and leaves his central territories vulnerable. If I were to step back and survey the board a half hour into our game, I’d see piles of his soldiers collected on the outskirts of his territories, poised to attack, but I’d also see neglected yet critically important areas in the center.

The average Christian university is similar: precariously stretched to its limits by mounting activities on the margins while its foundations falter. The analogy is probably obvious to those of us who have worked within such schools but less clear to the Christian parent asked to trust these institutions to guide their 17-year-old child into adulthood.

The territories on the periphery where universities overcommit their resources include professional degrees, graduate programs, extracurricular amenities, student support centers, and initiatives designed to make students culturally sensitive. These are usually outgrowths of strategic plans to attack the market and get a bigger slice of a shrinking pie. But by consequence, these schools neglect and even cannibalize the elements that matter most to a transformative experience of learning: spiritual growth, deep learning, and career preparation.

The result is that many Christian universities have become overpriced, ineffective, and increasingly secular.

Are Christian Universities Morally and Socially Progressive?

Many might immediately associate the mission drift of some Christian universities with their ideological progressivism. The problem is real but in different and more insidious ways than you might think.

That’s because the political agenda is driven by dollars more than ideas. Private Christian universities are bleeding students and losing money. Some colleges are closing permanently. The rest are experimenting with ways to set themselves apart.

Their surprising solution is a kind of half-hearted social progressivism in pursuit of becoming the hip, diverse Christian college. But strategic diversity is not an educational philosophy. It’s an enrollment strategy, and its victims are the very students it avers to empower.

Schools attempt to stay afloat by lowering admission standards, and while this often results in a more diverse student population—which on the surface seems like a good thing—a larger percentage of these new students drop out because they cannot afford tuition or fail out because their life circumstances prevent them from meeting course requirements. To address these challenges, universities further augment their student support and financial aid offices, hiring yet more bureaucratic staff and downsizing faculty, resulting in increased class sizes and costs, further compromising their ability to serve students. The vicious cycle is apparent to anyone who looks.

Even more disturbing is that this is done under the banner of combating social injustice. To be clear, subjects like social justice and racial history should not be feared or avoided in a college context. The problem is that some Christian universities, like secular ones, have become places closed off to open discussion and debate on issues of race, sexuality, and gender. Homogenous orthodoxies develop and dissenters are quickly silenced, such that students learn to keep quiet rather than openly question or push back. Heterodox thinking is sadly discouraged on some of the most crucial issues of the day.

recent study showed that nearly two-thirds of college students were reluctant to share their beliefs in the classroom for fear of social repercussions. College should not be just place but the place where young people can speak their minds—an environment where students are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, growing in knowledge and conviction along the way.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the percentage of students unwilling to question the most recent ideological trends roughly matches the percentage of students who lose their faith by the time of graduation. When some Christian universities are more about enforcing what to think than empowering students in how to think, the result is a generation of of uncritical thinkers easily swayed by whatever direction the secular winds blow.

Why Universities Abandoned the Liberal Arts

If many Christian universities are drifting ideologically progressive, it’s not out of a self-conscious effort to indoctrinate students as much as a side effect of an identity that has become, over time, fundamentally secular. And the clearest sign of the secularization of Christian higher education is the abandonment of the liberal arts.

The liberal arts have a mixed reputation, and deservedly so. Practically minded folks associate the phrase with irrelevance. To be sure, elite liberal arts colleges have become known for offering courses on whatever pet project a professor happens to be researching—“Piracy and Finger Painting in Shakespeare’s Tragedies,” “Puppetry and the Zombie Apocalypse.” I joke, but it’s a legitimate question: what good does today’s student receive by taking courses in Stoic philosophy, ancient world religions, and modernist poetry?

If we answer that the liberal arts are part of the problem, then we’re buying into the messaging of Christian universities whose curricular decisions are dictated by desperate attempts to stay relevant. Gordon College, Calvin University, Bethel University, Azusa Pacific University, and Biola University are among the many Christian schools that have made cuts in the liberal arts in the name of growth. But these decisions are based on several false myths. Here are two.

Myth #1: Liberal arts don’t prepare graduates for careers.

Employers resoundingly report that recent graduates lack capabilities in critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, and the skills that come from cultivating the life of the mind. Meanwhile, universities claim that professional degrees do prepare graduates for careers, when, in fact, 85 percent of graduates will not have a career in an area directly related to their majors.

Myth #2: General education (gen ed) courses are the least important in a student’s college experience and should be diminished and expedited.

The economics don’t add up for this one. When universities reduce and downplay the importance of their gen ed requirements, in efforts to funnel students into majors as quickly as possible, it becomes hard for students to justify paying a premium for courses they could just as easily take (at far cheaper costs) at a community college.

At Christian universities today, students often want to get gen ed requirements “out of the way” because such courses feel impersonal, are overlooked by faculty, and are disconnected from students’ major courses. But if Christian universities want to recommit to the mission of shaping young people’s hearts and minds in the knowledge of God and his creation, they need to begin by returning general education to the liberal arts and by allocating their best resources and faculty there.

What makes a university a uni-versity is its conviction that knowledge is unified—that what’s true about subjects like human dignity, justice, and happiness from the perspectives of biology and social science should be commensurate with what’s true about them from the perspectives of philosophy and the arts.

Christian universities have a special calling to the universality of knowledge. The entire world is created with order and follows laws that are regular and intelligible.

New Christian College Model Emerging

Will Christian universities find their way back? Currently, the prognosis isn’t encouraging.

The good news is that ineffective markets spawn innovation, and the U.S. has seen the emergence of an alternative Christian college movement.

In recent decades, colleges have been founded on a new model—slim, focused, affordable, and academically rigorous. Such schools include New College Franklin, Sattler College, Saint Constantine College, John Paul the Great University, Gutenberg College, Wyoming Catholic College, and, the newest addition, Hildegard College in Southern California.

Most of these schools have a price tag between $10,000 and $15,000 a year—compared to Christian university tuitions that average between $40,000 and $50,000. They accomplish this by doing exactly the opposite of the conventional, broken university model. They maintain academic rigor through a core curriculum that leads students through “Great Texts” in philosophy, literature, history, science, and theology. They practice financial stewardship by warding off administrative bloat. They avoid expensive amenities like athletics and resort facilities. And most importantly, they don’t compromise on what matters most—the classroom.

Wherever you are in the U.S., you’re not far from a new Christian college that is challenging the ineffective status quo. Consider them in your search for the college best equipped to prepare you—or the student in your life—for a life of Christian faithfulness.