Just as colleges are required to make public their consumer outcomes (e.g., graduation rate, retention rate, employment rate), we believe Christian colleges should also make public their spiritual outcomes.
Having proposed this to the ABHE Commission on accreditation, we are thrilled to see that at their annual conference in February, ABHE members will be voting on a change to Standard 2: Assessment and Planning:
A comprehensive assessment plan that, at a minimum, measures or evidences achievement and/or effectiveness in the following  areas:
The seventh area is “spiritual formation of students.”
In an August 8, 2018 interview, we spoke with Ron Kroll, the director of the ABHE Commission on Accreditation.
Do you favor the proposal?
Yes. The sense of having spiritual formation as an expectation for our schools is very appropriate
Why should colleges make public their spiritual outcomes?
It is important for our institutions to say that spiritual formation is one of the things that we are about, and here is the evidence that we are accomplishing it.
Over the past five years, I have seen changes in expectations for colleges. The focus has landed on the following:
- Accountability — Is the institution really doing what it says it is doing?
- Transparency — What is really going on at an institution? Is it really achieving what it claims as its objectives? Is there evidence?
- Student achievement outcomes — These are important but are sometimes heralded inappropriately. The graduation rate is one indicator, but not the all in all. Default rates, which are also important, can be an institutional problem or can be a student problem.
Questions about these things are asked of accrediting agencies and institutions. Good. But, we should be heralding what we do well; and for us, spiritual formation is one of those items. If an institution is doing their spiritual formation well, why wouldn’t they want to tell their students, donors, and constituencies? If an institution is not doing this well, wouldn’t that institution want to work on it?
Spiritual formation is important to our institutions. There is more of an assumption that spiritual formation is being imparted than evidence of how well. Our institutions do have a lot of anecdotal data. But, if the right questions are not being asked, if we don’t have the data, we cannot answer the question about whether we are doing a good job on this or not. The purpose of assessment is to generate good data for making decisions, for driving change, for ongoing improvements.
How would this requirement impact ABHE colleges?
By virtue of us requiring assessment of spiritual formation, we are directing institutions to grapple with what outcomes to measure, and how to measure them. This can stimulate dialogue within an institution. At annual meetings, institutions can talk. What are different schools doing? What is working? Over time, our institutions will get better at assessing and achieving spiritual formation. We have been assuming that spiritual formation is important, but I am not sure we have had a lot of dialog about what that means.
Will the ABHE require any particular testing, format, proof?
I don’t anticipate that ABHE will go to bright line standards. We do not want to say, “Here are the things you need to do.” I hope there will be more discussion between institutions. What is effective, what should I look for, etc? Rather than having a Commission mandate, let institutions discuss what is easy, hard, important. You can do what is easy, but that does not always give us the information that is important, the data that may be harder to get at. Collectively, we may be able to help each other figure all that out. We want to see them assessing spiritual formation, but we do not think there is only one way or one outcome that is appropriate.
Part of the challenge is what is spiritual formation? Ask 12 people and get 12 answers.
Some say there are good external indicators of spiritual growth while other institutions disagree. This is why we are hesitant to tell institutions how to measure spiritual formation. There is also the aspect of the mission. Spiritual formation may look different for a two-year program for young adults compared to a graduate seminary for people already engaged in ministry. So, it is important that it be assessed, but what and how needs to be tied to the institution’s mission.
Why will this mitigate against mission drift?
I am not sure that it will. An institution can just reduce the requirements, but if we are not having a discussion about spiritual formation, bringing it to the foreground, it is more likely to occur. Drift from the written or implied mission can be because administrators and faculty are not talking about it very much. And adjuncts might not be as ingrained in that mission. Spiritual formation should be part of what our institutions do. So, put it on the table. I assume that discussion will have an impact on mission drift. It can bring to the front things that have been accidental mission drift. The dialog may be beneficial.
People can write tests to fudge on the issue or they can alter data. Why is that better than no testing?
Dirty research is normal research. There are no perfect tests. In asking questions about how students are becoming more Christlike in actions, attitudes, etc., it seems contrary to the goal to say we should not do assessment because someone might falsify the information. Spiritual formation has a lot to do with integrity, and it would be ironic to falsify data to get a good score on a spiritual formation assessment instrument.
How will this impact the ABHE?
There are many factors that identify who we really are. For us, the biblical and ministry formation requirements are two of our distinctives. This could be a third distinctive.
If ABHE colleges are making public their spiritual outcomes, how might this impact the broader movement of Christian colleges?
Over the last decade, there has been a growing interest in student spiritual growth — not just career development. Previously, the focus was on careers. I am seeing more Christian liberal arts colleges that are less hesitant to champion their Christian values publicly.
- If you are a member of the ABHE, and will be attending the ABHE conference, consider voting “yes” for the proposed revisions to Standard 2. If your institution is not an ABHE school, consider lobbying your school and the community of schools it is associated with to also adopt a requirement of assessing spiritual outcomes.
- Read an article explaining more about the Spiritually Accountable College Assessment Project.
- Request the grant application for graduate students to study questions related to the Spiritually Accountable College Assessment Project: SpirituallyAccountable@ChristianAcademiaPress.com