The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted higher education institutions worldwide with uncertainty, financial woes, disruption of plans, and widespread despair. In the United States and elsewhere, it has intensified a trend of declining enrolment that threatens the economic survival of Christian colleges and universities.
Kim. et al. (2020) pointed out: “In a recent survey, 86 percent of college presidents put fall or summer enrolment numbers at the top of their most pressing issues in the face of COVID-19,” (p. 2). However, Law et al. (2021), who conducted a study at the University of Melbourne, Australia to determine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on university external engagements, indicated that despite the challenges, the pandemic also presents unusual opportunities for change, transition, development, and transformation (p. 23).
Historically, higher education has been open to innovation and creativity amidst times of change. One classic example in the American Christian context occurred when Harvard College, searching for its first president, “offered the position to the most innovative Christian educator of the time, Czech John Amos Comenius” (Glanzer, 2012, p. 19).
However, according to Adams (2020b), Christian higher education institutions have been facing declining student enrolment over the last decade and have been challenged to come up with workable solutions. The response of some Christian universities since 2018 have been to cut costs, but Adams wondered how effective this strategy has been in ensuring that the university remains effective and responsive to its clientele.
In the present pandemic context, what is the most appropriate response by Christian Higher Education Institutions to ensure that they remain relevant to their clientele? In this article, I explore two responses: attentiveness to the changing motivations of higher education students and emphasizing Christian higher education’s superior capacity to instill many of the “soft skills” that are essential to employability and professional success.
What Students Are Thinking
Reid (2021), in an Eduventures research report, indicated that “in this [2020/2021] recruitment cycle, prospective college students have indeed factored pandemic reality into their imagined college pathways.” Table 1 presents six general mindsets and the percentage of students prioritizing each one as of 2020, as discussed in Reid’s report.
Table 1: Prospective Student Mindsets for 2020
|Mindset||Description||% of Prospective Students|
|Career-oriented, hands-on, aiming toward internship and employment, sensitive to affordability.||
|Meaningful friendships, networking activities (including job prospects) and the social environment are leading concerns.||
Career through Academics
|Long-term career, strong academics integrated with career preparation as the pathway to success. Level-headed decision makers.||
|Immediate return on investment desired. Highly sensitive to affordability and immediate employability, not necessarily focused on long-term career.||16%|
Exploration and Meaning
|Wanting to make an impact on the world. Focused on liberal arts. Global butterflies.||
Grad School Bound
|Graduate or professional school is the goal. Scientific and technical skills and undergraduate research are key experiences, and academic quality and environment drive college choice.||
Source: Reid (2021)
The Eduventures report further explained how COVID-19 has produced a shift in the mindset of prospective U.S. college students, as shown in Figure 1, which covers the years 2020 and 2021.
The Eduventures report indicated that between 2020 and 2021, there was a 4–5% decrease in prospective students with the mindsets of Experiential Interest and Social Focus, a 1–3% increase in Career through Academics, Career Pragmatics, and Exploration and Meaning, and a 5% increase in the Grad-School-Bound mindset.
Interpreting these changes—which are quite dramatic in just a one-year period—is not easy. But in general, they seem to suggest that many students are losing confidence in the traditional pathway to employment through on-campus study and hands-on experiences such as internships. Instead, they want solid, practical, highly reliable routes to employability, as indicated by the growth in the Career Pragmatic mindset group (Figure 1), or are increasingly prepared to extend their preparation into graduate school.
Why Christian Higher Education?
It is not surprising in this time of great economic and labor-market uncertainty that prospective college students are prioritizing sure-fire ways to become employed. In such a context, how can Christian universities justify the cost of private higher education to prospective students and show that they give their graduates an edge over students emerging from secular institutions?
I would suggest that we highlight our ability to equip our students with superior behavioral or “soft” skills, along with the requisite knowledge and skills to function in their chosen career pursuit. Schulz (2008) offers a list of commonly recognized soft skills:
|• Communication skills
• Critical and structured thinking
• Problem solving skills
• Teamwork capability
• Negotiating skills
• Time management
• Conflict management
• Cultural awareness
• Common [general] knowledge
• Etiquette and good manners
• Work ethic
• Project management
• Business management
James 3:13–18 provides biblical support for this approach:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. … But wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (ESV).
Many of Schulz’s soft skills are reflected in this short New Testament passage. A pure person exhibits integrity, honesty, and a good work ethic; a peaceful person is capable of conflict management and negotiating; a gentle person shows empathy and cultural sensitivity; an impartial person works most effectively in teams; and so on.
Emphasizing their ability to develop these skills can help Christian institutions distinguish themselves from secular universities, which generally do not stress moral education in their mission statements. For example, one U.S. Christian university’s mission statement says that it will “educate students broadly for a life of moral and spiritual integrity, personal and social responsibility, and a continued quest for wisdom” (Glanzer, 2012, p. 20).
Christian universities should build their marketing and student recruitment strategies on their ability to deliver moral education and wisdom that can enable graduates to contribute to their employing organization’s effectiveness and manage their personal and social lives in a manner that fosters healthy families and communities.
Student Recruitment Strategies
A student-centered recruitment approach that highlights the cultivation of soft skills can make Christian higher education institutions more attractive amidst the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to McDonough (2020), “College is still a promising investment but the increasingly dynamic labor market requires a much more deliberate emphasis on the soft or ‘human’ skills that we often claim to be cultivated passively.”
Following are five recommended strategies to foster an increase in student enrolment in Christian higher education institutions through an emphasis on their capacity to develop and nurture their students’ job-relevant soft skills.
- Easy access to information on student and employer satisfaction. The homepage of the university’s website should include testimonies from alumni and employers as to how the integration of Christian principles in the institution’s academic program has given graduates an edge in securing employment and promotion. Two good current examples are the website homepages of Bakke Graduate University and the College of the Ozarks.
- Maintain open and accessible communication. Student recruitment officers should be readily available via telephone, email, or personal teleconference to address students’ queries and interests and to clarify any points of confusion or uncertainty. Personal communication offers the best opportunity for Christian higher education institutions to indicate where they give their students an edge over students attending secular schools. Therefore, school employees themselves should demonstrate the application of “soft skills” by their commitment to going beyond the minimum expectations in student recruitment activities so as to meet each potential student at their point of need.
- Provide additional support to vulnerable applicants. Christian higher education institutions should have administrative policies and operational guidelines and standards that embrace and reflect a spirit of grace toward vulnerable or disadvantaged applicants, ensuring that their staff go the extra mile to address issues these students are facing. This strategy will be especially helpful in the current pandemic context, as so many students are confused and uncertain about their future; they will need and appreciate a helping hand during their search for the best fit in higher education.
- Engage prospective students and employers in monthly public forums. Schools should invite employers who place an emphasis on soft skills and whose job offerings are in alignment with the courses being offered at the Christian institution to participate in virtual public forums with prospective applicants. These webinars could be hosted monthly during the student recruitment period, and the promotional approach should be to provide examples of the career-focused support being offered to students during their years at the university. Such events will enable students to appreciate the relevance of Christian higher education to their employability, career goals, and career path as well as their academic and personal goals and interests.
- Maintain a program of engagement between the university, employers and students. According to McDonough (2020), the curricula of higher education institutions generally tend not to focus heavily on the teaching of soft skills that cannot be duplicated by technological advancements. He therefore proposed four key practices that he believed will present a breakthrough for higher education institutions in meeting this new focus on finding employees who can effectively use their soft skills in the working environment.These key practices all focus on maintaining a collaborative partnership relationship between employers and universities, with the input of faculty members and students in the development of courses and internship programs. This is another strategy that Christian higher education institutions could apply in their student recruitment program, making students aware of available partnerships with employers by publishing information on their websites and other social media platforms.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the plans and programs of higher education institutions across the globe. Adams (2020a) stated, “A precipitous drop in the number of international students this fall is taking its toll on evangelical Christian colleges.” He added that difficulties in enrolling domestic students were causing US schools to suffer revenue losses, and he indicated that “international students sometimes pay more than their US peers.”
Higher education institutions, both Christian and secular, have been implementing programs geared toward the development of soft skills in their graduates over recent years with increasing emphasis within the last two decades, as supported by research and survey results (McDonough 2020; Neelakanta, 2019).
However, Neelakanta (2019) pointed out that despite the clear evidence that employers are demanding workers with strong soft skills, data to support the success of these programmes in meeting the workplace’s needs are not yet forthcoming, partly because many of these programmes are still in their incubation stage.
The onus is therefore on Christian higher education institutions to seize the opportunity, during this period of decline in student enrolment, to revamp and improve on their recruitment strategies. Christian institutions can and should capitalize on their superior positioning to equip their students with essential soft skills that will give them a needed edge over graduates of secular institution in the job market.
Adams, L. (2020a, November 20). Fewer international students at Christian colleges: COVID-19 causes decline hurting CCCU campuses. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/november/international-students-enrollment-christian-college-covid19.html
Adams, L. (2020b, November 20). Christian colleges are changing to survive. Is it working? Faced with declining enrollments, evangelical schools add programs, cut programs, and hope. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/november/international-students-enrollment-christian-college-covid19.html.
Glanzer, P. L. (2012, March 2). The missing factor in higher education. Christianity Today, 56, 18-23. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/march/missing-factor-higher-education.html.
Kim, H., Charag, K., Law, J., & Rounsaville, T. (2020, May). COVID-19 and US higher education enrollment: Preparing leaders for fall. McKinsey and Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Public%20and%20Social%20Sector/Our%20Insights/COVID%2019%20and%20US%20higher%20education%20enrollment%20Preparing%20leaders%
Laws, S.F., Catlin, J., & Locke, W. (2021). Understanding university engagement: The impact of COVID-19 on collaborations and partnerships. University of Melbourne. http://hdl.handle.net/11343/279434
McDonough, T. (2020, February 26). The case against education as usual. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/02/26/colleges-should-much-more-deliberately-emphasize-soft-skills-they-say-they-provide
Neelakanta, S. (2019, July 26). With badges, colleges take a hard look at teaching soft skills. Higher Ed Dive. https://www.highereddive.com/news/with-badges-colleges-take-a-hard-look-at-teaching-soft-skills/559657/
Reid, K. (2021, February 9). How student mindsets are shifting in a pandemic recruitment cycle. NRCCUA. https://encoura.org/how-student-mindsets-are-shifting-in-a-pandemic-recruitment-cycle/
Schulz, B. (2008, June). The importance of soft skills: Education beyond academic knowledge. Journal of Language and Communication, 146–154. https://www.bcsgea.org.bd/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The-Importance-of-Soft-Skills-Education-beyond-academic-knowledge.pdf