Better Models, not More Money: Higher Education Solutions

Better Models, not More Money: Higher Education Solutions May 20, 2018

Christian higher education is broken in ways that money will not fix. In fact, an infusion of cash into the present system would put off needed change and make the eventual transition to a better world more painful.

We water down our Christian commitment hoping to get more students. We shrink the liberal arts core in an attempt to attract transfer students. We move away from full-time professors to part-time adjuncts.

Education suffers. If we give the present system more resources, we merely delay our own destruction.

Here are seven big problems with Christian higher education today.

1. Much of Christian higher education relies on student debt to survive.

Usury is wrong and Christians have never been ethically comfortable with driving people into debt. One may defend modern forms of borrowing in a business context, but it’s difficult to justify the personal loan offered or facilitated by a Christian institution that charges students interest for education.

Christian institutions encourage students to borrow money that might take decades to repay without doing much to justify the necessity of this debt.

Most schools claim that the loan “pays” over time, given the quality of education. Even assuming this is true, this does not justify debt financing—it only mitigates the problem. Is debt absolutely necessary, or is it merely good for the institution?

After all, it is convenient for the school to get a lump sum upfront. The college facilitating the loan need not be involved in debt collection, as this is farmed out to outside lenders. Does easy loan money allow schools to miss creative solutions to the debt trap?

Second, there is the ethical dilemma of using debt to pay for a Christian liberal arts curriculum, which is often exactly the part of the curriculum that differs most from secular education. Should the delivery of mentoring and content really cost so much? Or do administrators overcharge for Christian mentors in order to pay for other aspects of the institution?

In any case, student loans do not have to be part of a school’s financial aid package. Students and parents are free to borrow money themselves, but schools need not facilitate or encourage this choice.

Schools must change to eliminate debt-based “aid.” This change can come because helping students is the right thing to do, or it can come when the bubble of student debt collapses, or when embittered alumni and frustrated parents stop participating in the system.

2. Much of Christian higher education has too much administration that is out of touch with the classroom or research.

This truth is so widely known among educators that little more needs to be said. Here are a few rules of thumb for parents and students to keep in mind when looking for a college:

  • There should be fewer vice-presidents on campus than there are full-time professors in the smallest major.
  • All services that can be outsourced should be.
  • Administrators should teach or do research whenever possible.
  • Finally, major decisions about the school should be made by the ones in the school who do the educating.

3. Much of Christian higher education takes new ideas and tries to force them into old systems.

Offer a new idea and a committee will be formed to study it. Binders will be filled. A college should be proud to offer a distinctive education, but administrative structure and procedures are not what education is. 

Different ways of delivering ideas can help enhance a school by adding new sorts of students. Many of the problems of present online education have come from trying to force it into the 1950’s credit/unit credentialing mold.

Educational entrepreneurs will come to a school with an idea. The first response? “This is a great idea!” The second response? “Let’s fit that idea into the old way of doing business.” The new plan becomes new jargon for the old way of doing business.

There is an alternative.

Walt Disney had the right idea. When his own company refused to innovate, he built a subsidiary that could play by different rules and try out new ideas. Too often when an innovator approaches a Christian school, the new wine is welcomed so long as it forced to age in binders and committee meetings so it can be poured into old wineskins.

4. Much of Christian higher education aims to reproduce the great 1950’s era schools: the American “collegiate experience.”

There is room, thank God, for schools that preserve this way of being—one thinks of Rice or Texas A&M. Oxford University is a wonderful place that perpetuates an even older model.

Just as Oxford did not prevent the formation of the American university,  so the goodness in the American schools should not stop us from serving different people even better.

Almost all Christian colleges lack the resources to do the Oxford model or the American university model properly. The time has come to step back and see what technology allows. What if we had the best of the American collegiate system, stripped of the expensive campus, administration, and student life aspects, and the best of the one-on-one education offered by the Oxford tutorial?

Sadly, professors are often the most resistant to change. We live in our comfortable Shires, ignoring the evils creeping up around us, protected from reality by noble administrators. We won the game by the old rules and resent that the rules must change.

We are content to encourage our students to borrow money as long as the system lasts for us.

God help us.

5. Much of Christian higher education is expanding up into graduate programs, instead of expanding down into secondary and primary education – areas that could use the help.

Too often the prestige factor induces schools to add doctoral degrees that are expensive to run and do not compete well in the marketplace. There is a place for alternative approaches to graduate education that are well-funded and do not (again) force students into debt.

Instead of adding to a graduate school market that is sometimes already oversaturated, many Christian schools should consider moving in the other direction by providing support for kindergarten through high school education. The Saint Constantine School has pioneered this idea with innovative leaders such as Greg Thornbury at The King’s College (NYC). We have gotten far enough to see that it works!

There is a profound need in many neighborhoods for support for public and private schools that are affordable and first-rate. This is a role Christian higher education could seize!

In addition, too much of Christian higher education is suburban or rural and not urban.

The world is becoming more urban. Christians should follow Saint Paul’s example and go to the cities where the people are. The sprawling suburban campus impedes diversity of ministry. Let’s take college to where people live and not force them to leave their own neighborhoods!

6. Too many Christian higher education resources are spent building campuses instead of investing in faculty.

The great benefit of the online revolution should be to decentralize offerings so that we can physically go where the people are. Setting up a gigantic warehouse of telemarketers is not education. Using a McCollege system that overcharges online students to pay for a massive old-school onsite campus is wrong.

Peter should not borrow money for cut-rate online, so Paul can borrow money to use the climbing wall Peter’s debt built.

7. Too much of Christian higher education misunderstands on-line education.

Good online education can happen, but it takes manpower. If anything, the impersonal nature of the medium means class sizes should be smaller than onsite classes, time given to relationships should be greater, and (oddly) screen time should be minimized. Most of us look at screens too much already!

Online education should not abandon regular mail (the old correspondence courses had good points!), actual books, and frequent opportunities for all online students to gather in a region and meet professors. A good online program will feature a student out doing things: reading books, talking to neighbors or church friends for assignments, or practicing a skill that is recorded on the camera phone—not staring at a screen answering multiple choice questions! Screen time must be built around real-time interaction with a full-time professor just as education has been and almost always must be.

God forbid the government pour money into the present system. God forbid we ignore these problems until even more students are debt-ridden.

The decline in enrollment that most schools face is an opportunity for Christian higher education. We can examine old ways of doing the business side of education that served us well for decades, but which are dead ends now.

We can get out of the debt business.

How? We need college presidents and leaders willing to set up the kind of “outside the system” innovations that Walt used to build Disneyland. Thank God I have met a few of these leaders. You don’t know their names now, perhaps, but you will! If Christian higher education lets go of the non-essentials in order to strengthen its commitment to the essentials, we will lead a higher education revolution.

Rachel Motte edited this essay.

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