A recent disturbing article just came through my desk. The author outlines the demographic and social forces that are leading to a dramatic decrease of college students in the coming decades. He has created a model to substantiate his prediction that nonelite schools will face tremendous pressure to close due to lack of students. I have not personally read enough of his work to offer a thorough critique but much of it rings true for me.
This is disturbing for me on a personal level and as a citizen. On a personal level, this sort of trend will impact the work I do in academia. I feel fairly secure in my own professional position, but my ability to train future academics will be greatly affected. Although I do not see myself losing my own job, I do envision the possibilities that I will receive less institutional support as colleges and universities are forced to retrench in light of attracting fewer students. As a citizen I am concerned about the lower number of individuals who have college training in our society. Will this impact the abilities of Americans to engage in critical thinking and thus the ability of our society to perform in ways to meet our needs?
The author contends that elite schools will be relatively immune from these changes. If he is correct, then non-elite schools would do well to consider how they can position themselves to survive the coming student drought. It occurs to me that such institutions have to put themselves in positions where they can serve certain niches in the populations. Those niches may be ideological, regional, religious, social or some other way people create their own identities. Merely being a solid mid-range institution of higher education may not be sufficient if the number of students decreases in the dramatic numbers predicted by this research.
This brings me to the focus of this post – the conservative Protestant college. I have not always been a big fan of such schools. I thought that they were at times too insularly and narrow in their focus. But, in a coming post-Christian world, these institutions will play an important role in our Christian communities. They will be places where Christian values and norms can be taught and maintained. I have come to believe that they must be maintained, even when facing attacks from larger political forces. Likewise, members of such colleges may also want to consider what to do with the coming crisis of student drought.
So here is my unsolicited advice to leaders and administrators at conservative Protestant colleges and universities. My suggestion is that they must maintain their traditional stances in key areas but also become modernized in other areas. Even though there is a decreased percentage of students holding to traditional Christian beliefs, these colleges and universities can still serve that niche. Servicing that niche will enable them to maintain a student base that allows them to thrive even during the current student drought.
So let me look at each part of my advice. First, I think that these colleges and universities must be careful not to become just another generator of modern sexuality norms. It is opposition to these norms that tend to produce a high level of animosity towards these institutions. But opposing those norms also allows these institutions to be set apart from other colleges and universities. If conservative Protestant schools want to offer something that students cannot get elsewhere, then being a place where one is not stigmatized for having conservative social values is a good way to differentiate oneself from other educational institutions.
This advice seems to go against the evidence indicating that younger individuals are less likely to have traditional sexuality norms as older individuals. But conservative Protestant schools have to realize that they cannot compete for all students. They have to serve that niche of students that do not want to follow the lead of the larger culture. It is also worth noting that part of the problems colleges and universities have is that political conservatives have developed an incredibly low trust in higher education over the past few years. There may be a goldmine of potential conservative students who do not trust what they see as “liberal” colleges and universities. Reinforcing traditional norms of morality can signal to these students that a conservative Protestant school is a safe place to go.
However, conservative Protestant schools cannot become replicas of today’s Republican Party. They must not become bastions of white conservative political thought. Thus, I also argue that in key ways many of our schools must modernize some of their ways of thinking. These institutions must also become multiracial. In some ways being multiracial would be a natural consequence of having a Christian institution since people of color are more likely to hold conservative Christian values than whites. But of course there is a history of racial abuse, as well as sins in our Christian past, that has made it harder for us to become diverse. To survive, modern conservative Protestant colleges and universities need to intentionally work through these barriers.
I have seen the effects of taking a passive attitude towards race relations at a Christian educational institution. In this case, it was not a college or university but a well regarded Christian K-12 school. My wife and I visited it to see if we wanted to place our son (we only had a single child at the time) in it when he got older. We were impressed with the academic expectations of the school. However, we were troubled that the school was overwhelmingly white. So we brought our concerns to the administrator.
She became somewhat defensive. She informed us that they were not racist and their doors were open to everyone. However, people of color were simply not coming to the school. My work on Christian institutions told me that with such a passive attitude that they would not get a lot of students of color. If there is not an attempt to address the concerns of people of color, then they will not perceive the school as a place where they are welcomed. It is not that my wife and I thought that the leaders of the school were racist. We would not have wasted our time to visit them if we had any inclinations that they were racist. But it is a lack of awareness that not all Christians fit into the dominant Eurocentric cultural framework that was keeping this school from becoming more diverse. And if Christian institutions of higher education maintain that framework, then they will also fail to attract significant numbers of students.
I have written in the past about my research which shows some of the steps conservative Protestant colleges and universities can take to increase diversity in their enrollment and improve the graduation rates of students of color. Specifically, there is a need to implement student programs for focus on minority groups, recruit professors of color, and to encourage student led diversity groups. But it requires more than doing the right programs. It is about using what we have in common as Christians to bring us together in an environment where we can grow in our faith. It is about building a multiracial Christian community with multiracial Christian education institutions.
Our conservative Protestant schools can offer a place where we can have productive conversations about the racial strife that continues to plague our society. I have argued in the past that such conversations are necessary if we are going to move beyond the racial stalemate we have today. A multiracial Christian university can be exactly the type of place where we can learn the norms we need for such a conversation. Do we not think that an educational institution where we have real interracial conversations, and not merely shouting matches, will not attract potential college students?
So these are some of my suggestions for how conservative Christian colleges may place themselves in a great position to serve the Christian community and to attract enough students to maintain their place in our society. Of course these are just suggestions and I have no magical power to know if they will be effective in dealing with the problem of student drought. Furthermore, even if this is the best direction for these colleges and universities to go, there are still going to be some schools that do not survive if the number of students decreases dramatically enough. Nevertheless, conservative Protestant colleges and universities have got to get a handle of this crisis now. Waiting five to ten years, when the effects of the student drought begin in earnest, may be too late.