Accountability for spiritual outcomes at Christian colleges will help parents and students choose colleges that increase spiritual formation, not fragment or dissolve it.

When families entrust their sons and daughters to a Christian college, they are likely to expect some positive spiritual outcomes, but have too often been stunned to find their child’s faith and personal relationship with the Almighty shattered. Many prospective students are concerned, too. One of the factors that my son weighed while he considered enrolling in a master’s degree is how it will impact his spiritual life.

Therefore, I believe it is appropriate for institutions of Christian higher education to have institutional outcomes pertaining to spiritual formation and a way of assessing their chosen spiritual outcomes. I also believe it is appropriate that these schools assist families in making choices by publishing their spiritual outcomes for public viewing. Do those running Christian universities agree? Do the families and the new students view these issues differently than those working at Christian colleges?

Method of Surveys

To explore the first question, a survey was disseminated to determine the attitudes of college and graduate school personnel. A follow-up report is planned on the attitudes of prospective students and families (i.e., the second question). The comparison may be enlightening.

The research was begun by surveying schools listed on the websites of

  • The Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE)
  • The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU)
  • The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS).

From the first set of surveys, only 24 responses were submitted. This corresponded to 8.0% of the 301 schools surveyed. With a goal of getting responses from at least 30% of the respondents, surveys were again sent to the ABHE schools. As detailed in Table 1, the 301 surveys eventually submitted yielded 21.6% of the total sample and 28.3% of the ABHE schools. Having a lower than 30% response rate raises questions of reliability and is thus a limitation to this study. This could be an area for further research.

TABLE 1

Demographics of those who responded (N=65)

Agency

# Schools Emailed

# Responses Received

ABHE

152 (3–4 persons each) 43

ATS[1]

6

CCCU

66 of 113 Governing Members on website (multiple emails to 49 of them) 7
TRACS 83 of 87 on website

TOTALS

301 schools emailed 65 Responses

Position of Respondents:

· 19 CEOs
· 17 CAOs
·  5 Directors of Institutional Research
·  4 Board Chairs
·  8 other positions
·  53 RESPONDENTS WHO GAVE THEIR POSITIONS

 

Should Christian Institutions of Higher Education Be Required to …

The first set of questions asked what respondents thought Christian institutions of higher education should be required to do. Did they agree with the researcher’s view that they should be required to have an institutional goal(s) pertaining to spiritual formation, a way of assessing their spiritual-formation outcomes, and that they make those results public?

Table 2 shows the results to the first set of questions: Should Christian institutions of higher education be required to . . .

  • Have an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation?
  • Assess spiritual outcomes of those who study at their school?
  • Make public the spiritual outcomes of those who study at their school?

Respondents were asked to use a scale ranging from negative five (-5) to positive five (+5). A high level of support was found for having spiritual formation goals and for assessing their achievement, but not for making them public. Respondents were also asked to explain any reasons they may have disagreed and what factors they considered to be good indicators of improved spiritual formation.

TABLE 2

Summary of Results

Average

Christian institutions of higher education should be required to …

Comments

3.6 A) Have an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation 32 reported a +5

10 reported a +4

4 reported a +3

0 reported a +2

1 reported a +1

1 reported a -1

1 reported a -2

1 reported a -3

0 reported a -4

3 reported a -5

3.2 B) Assess spiritual outcomes of those who study at their school 27 reported a +5

9 reported a +4

6 reported a +3

2 reported a +2

1 reported a +1

2 reported a -1

1 reported a -2

1 reported a -3

0 reported a -4

4 reported a -5

2.3 C) Make public the spiritual outcomes of those who study at their school 14 reported a +5

9 reported a +4

10 reported a +3

5 reported a +2

5 reported a +1

2 reported a -1

0 reported a -2

2 reported a -3

1 reported a -4

4 reported a -5

There was strong support for requiring Christian institutions of higher education to have an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation. The average rating was a 3.6 out of a possible 5.0. More interesting was that 78% of respondents gave a rating of four or five while only seven percent of respondents gave a negative four or negative five.

Pertaining to whether requiring Christian institutions of higher education should be required to assess the spiritual outcomes of those who study at their school, there was also strong support, but not quite as high as the support for the previous question. The average rating was 3.2. Sixty-eight percent of respondents gave a rating of four or five. Eight percent gave an average rating of negative four or five. So, for the first few questions, there was a small pool of strong opinions against being required to have and assess spiritual outcomes goals at schools that claim to be Christian.

Ratings were more mixed for whether Christian institutions of higher education should be required to make public the spiritual outcomes of their students. The average rating was 2.3. Only 21% of respondents gave a rating of four or five and 10% gave a rating of negative four or negative five.

 

A.     If you disagree with any of the above, briefly explain why?

After the questions requesting numeric ratings (e.g., quantitative research) this follow-up question was asked, “If you disagree with any of the above, briefly explain why.”

Admittedly, any attempt to measure spiritual formation will be flawed to some extent. As stated by one respondent, “Finding a tool to measure spirituality is a difficult process.” But, honest attempts to discover spiritual formation outcomes, while imperfect, provide much better insight than no data at all.

Tracking such data over time can be especially important. When a school that was founded for spiritual purposes (e.g., a school that was launched with offering-plate money) is drifting from a spiritual mission, there are often faculty members and administrators who want to hold the school to those purposes. These employees end up in conflict with other staff members who are more “progressive.” Spiritual outcomes data would be quite useful to those wanting the school to remain faithful to spiritual purposes. Of course, the data, if made public, would be important to families choosing a college for their high school graduates.

Some respondents expressed that comparisons between schools would be inappropriate. One stated that, “Making public these assessments may be misleading since there is no uniform standard or assessment that measures spiritual growth.” Another explained,

I believe that “Spiritual growth” is too nuanced to “force” the sharing of assessment data. Having said that, I believe that institutions do themselves a favor by sharing such information on a volunteer basis (especially if their data says they are making a positive impact). But there is simply too much disagreement (theologically, doctrinally, philosophically) to mandate the sharing of such data. And sometimes there are factors that would lead to even the most intentionally orthodox and evangelical institutions having data that puts them in an unfavorable light.

Again, this researcher agrees. But a requirement that Christian higher education institutions must have standardized assessment instruments that enable schools to compare their scores to national norms is not what I am promoting.

Having no spiritual formation goals and no assessment of them brings into question whether a “Christian” school is only Christian because it once was so. It is important to note that prospective students and their families have consumer rights to adequate information before sending their children to schools where students might tend to graduate as uninterested in Christianity.

Tangential to the issue of comparing incongruent assessment data from different schools is the possibility that some schools may tweak the questions, fabricate the numbers or otherwise present misleading data. Sad to say, not everyone bearing the name of Christ is always doing what Jesus would do. No respondents brought up this issue on the surveys.

This researcher agrees with the facts stated by the following response, but believes it misses the point:

Some Christian universities are liberal-arts institutions that may not consider spiritual formation to be part of their mission, and they likely have only secular accreditation. I think it would be inappropriate for regional accrediting agencies to require institutions to have spiritual/religious goals or outcomes.

Yes, it would be inappropriate for regional or secular accrediting agencies to require religious goals or outcomes. But Evangelical accrediting agencies (e.g., ABHE, TRACS) could consider requiring and assessing spiritual outcomes.

Yes, there are “Christian” liberal-arts institutions that do not consider spiritual formation to be a part of their mission. But why call themselves “Christian?”  Is it because a school would want to fool donors who remember when the school did consider spiritual formation to be part of its mission? A response that grasped this well noted that,

If [spiritual formation] is not stated in the institution’s outcomes or objectives, then it is not important to the institution.

As another respondent stated so well:

Nothing should be required from the outside. It should flow from the deeply held beliefs of the institution. If they do not hold spiritual development to be sacred, then they have lost their way and are not really “Christian.” [emphasis mine]

The objection I regarded as most valid was this:

I agreed but could imagine Christian institutions with open enrollment having issues with assessing and publishing spiritual formation outcomes.

One can imagine a Christian school recruiting students from China and having a goal of evangelizing them. Obviously, that would not be stated in the recruitment literature. Another respondent explained,

I work at a place that is more intentional about its faith integration than most places, but we are dealing with an extremely unchurched and sometimes antagonistic student body.

Of course, this situation does not suggest a problem with having an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation or assessing it. The issue would be how to make it public. If it was to be made public, some very carefully nuanced verbiage might be in order.

B.      What Is Important to Assess?

Another comment on this topic that has merit is as follows:

I reject the idea that there is a single standard answer to these questions. Institutions should be free to define desired outcomes in appropriate outcome statements, and they should then be held accountable for appropriately measuring students vis-à-vis those statements. Among other things, the diversity of Christian traditions mitigates against specificity here. Even within classic Christian spiritual practices, a Mennonite Bible college is unlikely to express those practices the same way a Neo-Calvinist seminary would, and a Pentecostal university will be different still. I think I understand the desire for standardization and uniformity, but I also believe it is antithetical to the strong tradition of higher education in the US.

I agree.

Still, it was valuable for this researcher to see which topics to assess were suggested somewhat frequently. There is also the issue of what we are able to assess within the context of academia. This issue was raised by a respondent:

Assessing spiritual formation is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks in assessment. Spiritual engagement (e.g., attendance at events, frequency of prayer, etc.) is easily measured, but assessing spiritual formation relies almost entirely on indirect measures, which presents challenges.

What the respondent calls “spiritual engagement” was the most common answer pertaining to what to assess. This included the frequency of engaging in spiritual disciplines (e.g., Bible study and prayer) as well as participation in church and ministry (e.g., volunteer service).

Self-assessment of spiritual growth was mentioned. It would also be easy to measure the beliefs claimed by students (e.g., a pre- and post-test on theological beliefs).

Finally, respondents were asked to mark whether their schools

  • have an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation,
  • assess spiritual outcomes of those who study at their school, and
  • make public the spiritual outcomes of those who study at their school.

The results showed consistency between their practices and the opinions that were referenced above.

I.  Does your school …

Table 2 above shows that there is good support for having a spiritual formation goal and for assessing its achievement, but not for making it public. Table 3 below shows that the majority of the respondents’ schools have already taken the position of having and measuring spiritual outcomes, but not reporting them.

TABLE 3

Information on Respondent’s Schools

Does your school “Have, Assess, and Make Public?”
# % Practice
41 89.1% A) Have an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation?
38 82.6% B) Assess spiritual outcomes of those who study at your school?
15 32.6% C) Make public the spiritual outcomes of those who study at your school?

Almost 90% of respondents serve at schools that have an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation. Most (e.g., 82/6%) also assess the achievement of spiritual outcomes. But only a third make their outcome public. Would families looking at different Christian colleges want to know the spiritual impact that seems to result from studying at the schools they are considering?

As can be seen in Table 4, respondent schools are generally doing what they believe should be done. There is perhaps a lower correlation to “should” and “does” for assessing spiritual outcomes as well as a little lower correlation for whether to make the results public.

 

TABLE 4

Comparing What Schools “Should” Do to Practices at Respondent’s Schools

Should be Required to “Have, Assess and Make Public?”

Average & Rating Scale:

-5 to + 5

Does your School “Have, Assess and Make Public?”

# and % of Schools

Practice

3.6 Average

60.4% gave a 5

79.3% gave a 4 or 5

41

89.1%

A)  Have an institutional goal pertaining to spiritual formation?

3.2 Average

50.9% gave a 5

67.8 gave a 4 or 5

38

82.6%

B)  Assess spiritual outcomes of those who study at your school?

2.3 Average

26.9% gave a 5

44.2% gave a 4 or 5

15

32.6%

C)  Make public the spiritual outcomes of those who study at your school?

 

As noted above, Christian colleges and graduate schools are doing what the respondents think they should be doing (e.g., having spiritual goals and assessing them, but not normally making them public).

 

Conclusion:  Studying opinions of prospective students and their families

Considering the sad history of Christian colleges drifting away from a Christian mission, should Evangelical accrediting agencies mitigate the trend by requiring schools to make their spiritual outcomes public?

Reflect on the interests of families who sent their sons and daughters to colleges where the student recruiters promoted how “Christian” the educational experience would be while the faculty actually were undermining the faith of their students.

Yes, this happens.

If prospective students and families consider spiritual formation important, how are they to know what spiritual outcomes are likely?  Here is a solution offered by one respondent:

I do not see a problem with publishing the overall spiritual score of institutions; however, the best publication is word of mouth by current student to perspective students. Example of this would be that certain State Universities are known as party colleges. They do not publish this. This is known by word of mouth from students attending the college.

I do not find that solution to be adequate. Too many families have been surprised by the negative spiritual outcomes of the “Christian” higher education institution that they had chosen. The results were not what they thought they were signing up for. The loss they felt was much deeper than the mere tens of thousands of dollars they spent.

The view of this researcher is obvious. Mine is a minority view among the college personnel surveyed. One has to wonder how the views of prospective students, first-year students, and families who sent their offspring would line up with the views of college personnel. Hopefully, schools will be found to help facilitate this further research.

____________

[1] The researcher did not use the ATS website as a source of schools to email. They are listed in the table to reflect schools that had more than one accrediting agency.

Author

  • Dr. Agron is the managing editor of Christian Academia Magazine. He also serves as an accreditation consultant. Since 1999, Agron & Associates, Inc. has specialized in helping Christian colleges achieve accreditation. In both roles, his mission is to help raise up Christian colleges in quality, quantity, reputation and impact for the Kingdom of God. If you would like to discuss how his firm can help your school achieve accreditation, contact him at [email protected]

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