Saving a Seminary: The Re-imagination of the 21st Century Christian College and University (Part 2 of 2)
In part one of this series, I shared my personal affection, history and view regarding the news that my alma maters Cincinnati Christian University and Nebraska Christian College closed their doors. Both schools made bold moves, incurred massive debt, lost alumni support, failed to attract sufficient student bodies and, generally, lost their way…if not their historic focus.
To be fair, there was clear mismanagement and poor leadership at Cincinnati Christian University. However the closure of the much smaller Nebraska Christian College–who essentially failed to compete in a changing world–should not be overlooked. Most Bible colleges and Christian colleges are smaller institutions (under 300 students). They have little room for error let alone mismanaged error.
When Cincinnati Christian University faced losing accreditation, it was the nail in the coffin.
Accreditation is critical to any institution. Without it, students couldn’t afford to stay. If a school loses accreditation, it forfeits federal funding for student loans and other grants. Accreditation is also necessary to matriculate into graduate programs at other institutions. It’s very difficult to recruit to a school without accreditation. It’s why many smaller Bible colleges align with the Association of Biblical Higher Education. Accreditation gives a school outside muscle that defends its purposes, evaluates its work and supports its outcomes. It’s why it’s difficult to regain the integrity of an accreditation body once the trust is broken.
It certainly wasn’t good news for Cincinnati Christian University. It’s still not good for schools encumbered by massive debt, failing enrollments, teaching/staff reductions, and suspended academic programs. All schools face a re-evaluation of their accreditation every three to ten years. For schools aligned with the ABHE it’s once a decade. These evaluations include site visits, surveys, interviews and researched evidence to prove the school is fulfilling its educational outcomes. A school with red flags, like Cincinnati obviously had, can change everything on a dime.
As someone involved (either as a student, professor or administrator) in Christian higher education for four decades, I feel I have unique experience on this matter.
Can struggling Bible Colleges still survive?
The short answer is YES. But I’ll be honest, I have my reservations (and they’re serious ones), for the following reasons:
- Given the debt many schools now carry, the only way to save them would be through liquidating assets, courting private donors and/or recovering the church’s mission dollar. Another tuition and fee hike will not solve this problem. Cutting degrees and ending fund-sucking sports programs won’t save these schools. Reduction in salaries and staff won’t fix it it. What’s needed is for the school’s wealthiest alumni and most committed churches to return to the giving fold. Furthermore, debt-ridden schools will need to liquidate assets (sell buildings and/or land). And that’s not an easy prospect. It’s hard to liquidate hard-fought and traditional “brick and mortar” assets. It’s equally difficult to regain the lost trust with donors, alumni and churches.
- Given the current Covid-19 pandemic “moment,” many struggling schools still think they’ll shortly return to life “pre-Covid.” They won’t. The events in 2020 that locked down and shut down American schools–from preschool to graduate–was not an interruption. It will prove a cultural disruption. We are experiencing a new cultural landscape. Every industry–entertainment, restaurant, retail, news and sports–has evolved. Online, virtual and digital formats are immune to the virus, and consequently offer a portal for change and opportunity. Both the church and school initially played along with online, but still preferred traditional formats. Now, as September is at hand, many schools realize that students aren’t coming back. Church attendance is down 30-60% from pre-Covid numbers. To their credit, public educators used the summer recess to revamp, upload, create and improve new digital classrooms. Most Bible colleges, I fear, chose to ride it out. They’ll quickly discover that was a poor choice.
In summary, the present (and likely) future for learning will be through online portals. Similarly the future church will likely be smaller, home-based, digital and communal. Neither the school or church will look anything like it did to start 2020.
Why should Bible and Christian colleges consider online education?
In the early 2000s, I worked for a midwestern Christian college that was envisioning where it could be in 2020. As part of the process, the staff and faculty met for a day of visioning. At the time, I was teaching a couple online courses. I was also researching cultural change and how technology was radically altering the future. When it came my turn to “dream” out loud, I boldly suggested the school could sell its physical property and create a purely online Bible College.
The idea was met with stone cold silence. A few jaws hit the floor with a thud. Several thought the idea extreme and unnecessary. Some panned it as impossible (“We’ll always have brick and mortar schools,” one old prof said). But my youthful zeal still wondered. The digital photograph had already killed print photos. The newspaper was dying. The typewriter, overhead projector and VHS cassette–all educational staples at one time–were history. And this was before GPS, social media, smartphones, and Zoom.
I’ve now taught thousands of students through online classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level. My doctorate was a hybrid online-in person program and my dissertation project focused on reimagining a youth ministry degree into a purely online experience. I see many advantages to online platforms–for both the church and school. In the case of higher Christian education, , I posit these pluses:
- Online learning is timeless. It requires no particular day or time of day. Students log on and learn when it fits their schedules. Education moves 24/7/365.
- Online is far more interactive and experiential. The best learning happens through conversation and experience. Unlike traditional lecture-based classrooms (with scattered conversation), online learning operates via the discussion board. The online projects can be more contextual, practical and experiential. It’s not busy work. You also can’t hide or sleep online. In my classes, comments on the board are counted (if their sufficiently “substantive”) and the weekly participation grade is based on how much a student showed up. The best part? Learners can craft their responses (even edit after the fact). It’s pre-meditated and intentional learning that even the most introverted student can master.
- Online is more affordable for the institution. Online demands no classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, student centers, libraries, athletic fields, gymnasiums, large office buildings, print shops or other physical facilities. And since most professors live outside the area and work as “contracted employees,” there are no retirement plans, health care costs or other academic amenities (although such amenities would certainly be attractive). Outside of a skeletal, dedicated IT staff and hardware/software, online learning is more affordable in the long run.
- Online attracts better and more diverse instructors. I live in Boise, ID because I love to live in Boise, ID. I don’t want to move anywhere else, but I’ll teach all over the world if asked. Online professors don’t have to relocate to the institution and that means schools can draw a much higher caliber of professor.
- Online is already an accepted and expected way to learn. The youngest generations (born since 1990) grew up in a purely digital, cyber and social media culture. Many of them went to kindergarten with iPads. They prefer to “stream and cloud” (view/store digital content). They’re comfortable with e-learning pedagogy and can quickly adapt when forced into purely cyber formats. It won’t be hard for them to embrace digital learning. Most already have.
What can Bible and Christian colleges do to reimagine an online school?
This is where radical reinvention is necessary, particularly for administrators who now realize a shift is necessary to an online learning presence, whether partial, hybrid or entirely. Every school is different, with different existing resources in staff, hardware, software and programs, but here’s a possible path any Bible or Christian college could pursue to transition to an online or hybrid/online experience:
First, as much as possible, rent or sell school buildings and land to outside interests. Use the proceeds to pay down and off existing debt. Most schools need a financial jump start, if not a fresh start. Renting is a good option, but for schools blessed with the assets, the sale of unused land or buildings could prove beneficial. For schools looking to move completely online, sell off everything and move only a skeletal staff to a new location. A campus loses value every day its under-populated and/or vacant.
Second, retain (and/or rehire) only necessary faculty to teach courses in Bible, theology and pastoral training. Students currently enrolled in these courses could continue in their matriculation toward a degree (unfortunately without a dorm or cafeteria). General education subjects would now be transferred from other schools. All non-pastoral and biblical degrees and programs, including their respective teaching faculty, would end. Bible and Christian colleges need to return to their roots.
Third, for those considering a hybrid model (no dorm or cafeteria): relocate the institution to a local church . Develop a partnership with an area megachurch, particularly one with strong, past ties to the institution. Megachurches already have the facilities to host in-person activities, events and classes. Another idea: create a regional “university” with pastoral training centers in large market areas. One school with multiple locations. The difference would be these pastoral training centers are local churches. There would be no dorms, cafeterias or costly sports programs. In-person classes would be taught by faculty living in the area, via Zoom web conferencing or the pastoral staff of the host church. Internships and field experiences would be done in house.
Fourth, recruit a Board of Trustees firmly committed to the founding vision and values of the institution. For example, Cincinnati Bible College (according to a 1927 yearbook) stated: “On September 23, 1924, the new school began its first session in two brick buildings. Two things were evident from the beginning; first, the bible was taught with the earnest desire of arriving at its true meaning . . . and second, men and women whose earnest desire was to serve God, were received in classes and given work they most needed.” The school was launched for two reasons: 1) to learn biblical doctrine and theology; and 2) to use that learning in Christian service. Christian service is best defined in our current church climate as vocational work (paid ministry staff) or para-church organizations (missionaries, faith-based organizations, Christian schools). I don’t believe the original purpose of Cincinnati Christian University, for example, was to certify school teachers, train nurses, equip businessmen or launch the careers of aspiring athletes. This is noble work but it’s not the role of the Church to equip for these professions.
Finally, a reliance upon online education to fill in the gaps. As already stated, the younger generations currently entering higher education are more attuned and acclimated to online learning options. The advantages to online education continue to grow and this Covid-19 moment only proves its merit. It’s a win-win for schools who need excellent courses and faculty, but can’t afford the physical hires.
Nevertheless, let’s face the terrible truth. Even if Cincinnati Christian University or Nebraska Christian College pursued such a radical (online) reinvention, there’s no guarantee they have survived. It’s something we’ll never know. However, I am convinced if many Bible and Christian colleges don’t do something now, it’s pretty much a certainty that their school’s days are numbered. The debt will eventually be too much. The poor enrollments will mount. The reluctance to embrace change will prove evident.
Cincinnati Christian University’s situation in the summer of 2019 was considered “dire” and “at risk.” By December 31, they were no more. Few saw closure coming, but it still happened.
The irony is its never too late to change. This grave Covid-19 situation offers a unique and glorious opportunity for change, renewal, growth and resurrection.
The best is yet to come for those willing to get outside the brick and mortar box.
Posted on August 28, 2020, in American church, Christian education, Higher Christian education, Leadership and tagged Christian higher education, Leadership, restoration movement. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.