Over the past few years, frequent news stories have announced the closure of several Christian higher education institutions. Although institutional officials may cite a number of reasons leading to closure, the primary reason appears to be finances. Many of these institutions have a small enrollment, a dwindling number of applications, and possess a small or non-existent endowment. In colleges with limited resources, even a small decrease in enrollment can leave administrators scrambling to cover expenses.
Solutions for Christian Colleges with Limited Resources
This situation is not unique to Christian institutions; many small colleges and universities are facing similar challenges. However, Christian institutions are unique because they often carry the “Bible college” moniker that comes with the perception they only offer degrees in Bible, ministry, and theology; this often limits the number of applications they receive. Therefore, Christian institutions must restructure the way they “do” higher education in order to survive and reverse the trend of closure. Strong and decisive solutions are necessary to create a forward-moving path to revitalize Christian higher education.
Christian institutions have the potential to be powerful bastions of higher education. However, Christian institutions must respond to market trends in order to remain relevant; Christian institutions must demonstrate the importance of Christianity in education and learning. For the Christian institutions with the willingness to do so, such a task will require time, effort, and financial resources to reimagine Christian higher education. While it is important to remain true to the primary purpose of Christian institutions, as formal training in Bible, theology, and ministry is needed, additional education programs are necessary for Christian institutions to remain vibrant places of learning.
Online learning can be expensive to implement, but it is arguable that long-term benefits outweigh initial costs. With the rapid increase of fully online universities, as well as the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs), Christian institutions must develop their own niche in online education. Online education offers 24/7 access to learning not limited by geographic location or availability, and students can complete coursework within the parameters of personal schedules, rather than conforming to a less flexible university schedule. While some students purposefully seek out traditional classroom settings, the increasing trend in online degree offerings is unmistakable.
Christian institution must obtain and employ a technology infrastructure that can support offering online course or degree options, and the learning management system (LMS) should be sufficiently robust to support both synchronous and asynchronous courses, providing an option for future expansion. Further, Christian institutions should develop coursework and content delivery specifically for an online learning environment, including advising, academic support, faculty and staff communications, and even online learning communities.
Technology can be useful in other aspects of Christian education, including broadcasting worship programs, social media services (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.), podcasts, and online recruitment and marketing. A reliable, well-designed web presence is a necessity; it is the primary method to seek information about an organization. An institution that does not invest in technology will find it increasingly difficult to recruit students and allow potential students to explore all it has to offer.
Christian institutions must make their presence known in the higher education marketplace, and technology should be a significant aspect of marketing. An online presence that includes social media is vitally important to advertising and “branding” the institution. While not a truly equivalent comparison, higher education can be likened to a marketplace where a large number of institutions are vying for a finite number of students. The institutions that are able to attract larger numbers of consumers (i.e., students) have the potential to be successful. Strong competition to recruit students requires Christian institutions to launch effective marketing campaigns to compete in the higher education marketplace.
An unfortunate reality is that launching a marketing campaign is not cheap. However, marketing is a necessary aspect of promoting the institution, which leads to increased enrollment. Marketing campaigns should be considered long-term investments. When considered from a long-term perspective, marketing is how a university increases their name recognition (or “brand”), speaks of the educational opportunities (or “products”) available to students, and demonstrates how they are unique among all other higher education institutions. Marketing gives institutions a platform to reach potential students in other geographical locations. Further, working with an experienced marketing organization can provide a university with a high quality, professional product built, maintained, and operated by professionals.
To compete in higher education, Christian institutions must expand their educational offering; the changing face of ministry means that churches are hiring more individuals who do not possess a ministry degree. The reality of higher education is that degrees in Bible, theology, and ministry are not in high demand; Christian institutions must expand to embrace additional degree programs.
Higher education is not just about selecting a major and obtaining a degree. Instead, higher education also teaches morals, values, and how to live and function in society; this is an aspect where Christian institutions have the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their secular counterparts. Christian institutions have a responsibility not to simply offer a degree that is also obtainable from a secular university. Instead, Christian institutions must infuse Christian ethics and values into all curricula; this is what sets Christian institutions apart, and this is a primary reason students seek out Christian institutions.
With so many similar higher education options available across the nation, Christian institutions must not only offer the degrees sought by students in order to compete and remain relevant within the higher education marketplace, but they must also provide a distinctly Christian university experience that is only available at a Christian institution.
Christian institutions must learn to share resources. Due to the time and expense of adding degree programs, one option may include collaborating with other Christian institutions. This is not a suggestion of merger; instead, this is a suggestion to develop an agreement to share resources in a way that benefits each institution.
For example, instead of duplicating available degree offerings, one option might be establishing a partnership with another Christian institution to offer similar degrees in different formats (e.g., traditional vs. online). Another example might be an institution recruiting their students to enroll in a graduate degree offered at a partner institution; a revenue sharing agreement could be developed that would be beneficial to each institution. Similar partnerships may be possible with local churches, businesses, and organizations that could provide mentoring, internship opportunities, and even employment options for students after graduation.
Collaboration within the local community is beneficial for a Christian institution by becoming a practical resource within the community. Collaboration within the local community can involve professional training and workshops, providing meeting space for civic and youth organizations, offering concerts and other fine arts appreciation events, hosting missions and outreach efforts, providing ministry resources and expertise for the church community, and other such opportunities.
To be engaged with the local and church communities, Christian institutions must create community. Providing an engaging community is paramount for Christian universities; students require an inviting place to live, a supportive atmosphere to encourage exploration, and a challenging environment in which to learn. Higher education often has a reputation of being disconnected from reality and focusing more on ideas than practical matters. Higher education is designed to explore ideas, but it better serves the community if those ideas address a practical matter.
Christian institutions, by their very nature, deal with the practical concerns of humanity. The Christian faith addresses the reality of pain, suffering, death, shame, and guilt by offering hope through these trials. Building a community that seeks to comfort those who are hurting and help those who are wounded can tangibly demonstrate a Christian institution’s commitment to train and serve in a profound manner.
Concluding Thoughts for Colleges with Limited Resources
As smaller Christian institutions face dwindling enrollment, a bold response is necessary in order to survive. Christian institutions must evolve to compete within the higher education marketplace. Necessary changes include embracing technology to increase enrollment and expand marketing potential, increasing the number of available educational opportunities, collaborating with similar institutions and organizations, and creating a diverse and inviting educational community.
Throughout these changes, Christian institutions must maintain a firm commitment to protecting their Christian identity and retaining their Kingdom-focused mission to train students for Christian ministry in a variety of professions, not just professional ministry.