The Cost of Higher (and Higher) Education

By Josh Wymore

    I am convicted by the state of higher education. Not upset, not worried, nor concerned. Convicted. And not just regarding higher education in general. What really pulls my guilt strings is Christian higher education and, more specifically, the cost of a Christian education.

    I attended a Christian liberal arts institution for my undergraduate degree and another one for my Master’s degree. Both universities provided me with an exceptional education—far better, I’ll admit, than I expected. Tuition was steep, but my family and I sacrificed, worked hard, and prayed a lot. And somehow (God knows how), we made it through. 

    I left excited about the opportunities available through a Christian education. God incredibly provided for me to study with some exceptional minds and be influenced by some truly fabulous peers. I assumed if another individual was equally motivated and prompted by God, he or she too could one day experience the same sort of life transformation that I serendipitously stumbled into. I joined the student development profession precisely because I wanted to give to others what had been so lavishly given to me.

    The Morality of Debt

    Unfortunately, it seems life is not that simple. A few years and one economic downturn later, the cost of higher education has continued to rise significantly while one’s ability to meet that levy has decreased quite a bit. This hit home to me personally when my youngest brother—a student with a great heart, good grades, and a 26 on his ACT—couldn’t get a dime of merit-based aid at one of the CCCU institutions he visited. After loans of more than $10,000 a year, he still would have been left with that much to pay out of pocket. All this expected from a pastor’s family whose gross income hovers somewhere around the poverty line.

    This story pales in comparison to those of recent graduates we all know. One such student who I supervised last year graduated with somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000 in debt. She was brilliant, active on campus, and passionate about serving in missions. Yet she, like many students, is spending her next few years working to pay back loans so she can do what she feels God has truly called and equipped her to do. 

    Colleges are places where ideals touch reality. Research becomes service. Ideas become action. God changes lives. We, as educators, stand in the gap between where students are and where they need to be and guide them—sometimes push them—from point A to B. Yet while we cross the chasm as educators, we do not often do so as businesspeople. Unless economic trends change significantly in the next decade, a private college education will soon be out of reach for most people. (Many would argue that it already is.) Most of those who do scrape together enough to matriculate will graduate with at least significant, if not overwhelming, debt. Our ideals simply do not align with reality.

    I recognize that a Christian education is not a right, but neither should it be a suffocating burden. I believe strongly in the power of living and learning in a Christ-centered community, and I will proclaim its worth until my dying day. Yet something in me is unsettled by the thought of sending an eager, yet debt-laden, graduate into the ministry—or any other career, for that matter.

    So where do we draw the line? How much debt is “good debt”? Does the decision come down to a generalized mathematical calculation of lifelong earnings compared to loans and lost wages? A February 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal even debunked much of that justification by highlighting the College Board’s inflated report on earning differences. Experts now estimate the average difference between a high school grad and a college degree earner is not $800,00 but is actually somewhere in the $280,00-$450,000 range (Pilon, 2010)—a figure much less significant than the one often touted by guidance counselors or admissions personnel.

    All of us would agree that one’s quality of life (and capacity for service) is greatly increased by the spiritual-forming, mind-shaping, and skill-equipping process of an education, but where does stewardship factor into the equation? Like it or not, financial burdens are a significant factor—one we in higher education must continue to address.

    We are left, then, with not only a business issue but also a moral imperative. How much longer can we, in good conscience, advise students to seek out another co-signer to add just one more loan? At what point does increased church involvement and a community college degree become the alternative solution to a high-cost Christian education?  The greatest question is then this: What can we do to provide students with the opportunity to grow while allowing them to live lives free of overbearing debt?

    The Reality of a Christian Liberal Arts Model

    Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. The product we at Christian colleges deliver is expensive.  Residential living and liberal arts-based instruction may be the most inefficient model of education in existence, yet most of us would agree that these elements are critical cornerstones of our colleges and universities. The unfortunate downside of this method of delivery is an inherent financial inflexibility—one that is generally enrollment-driven and gift-dependent and thus more susceptible to economic downturns. 

    36.3% of private four-year colleges’ budgets come from tuition—a number almost double that of its public counterparts. Any attempt to become less reliant on student numbers is hampered by the fact that the average private institution’s endowment lost nearly 20% in the 2008-2009 fiscal year and overall giving decreased by 18.8% during that span as well. Couple those figures with an average tuition total of over $39,000, and Christian colleges find themselves competing for an increasingly small segment of the population to support its enrollment-driven budgets. (Finance, 2010)

    Although the business of the institution is not of primary concern to student development per se, these issues impact the way we do our jobs. As budgets tighten and models of information delivery augment to meet student needs, our profession must adapt in the form of assessment and innovation.

    Assessment

    The national cry for transparency and assessment is indicative of the move toward greater public accountability. Because of cutbacks, recessions, and increasing costs, data that was once used primarily by accrediting agencies is now being expedited to the general public in an effort to help the “buyer” make the best decision as well as hold the institution responsible. One public school system in Texas has even begun publishing the ratio of each faculty member’s salary to the number of students taught and research funds secured, demonstrating the “efficiency” of each instructor (Mangan, 2010).

    When resources become limited, even historically collegial institutions begin to operate under nuances of these political or bureaucratic frameworks. If the faculty—the heart of each institution—is coming under fire for squandering resources, less central services (such as student development) will surely draw equal scrutiny. If these departments are not proven to be both cost-effective and critical to the mission of the institution, they will surely face downsizing at best.

    Fortunately, student development is critical to a Christian institution’s mission. Teaching students how to integrate their daily lives into their faith is one of the areas that most distinguishes a Christian college from its secular counterparts—a distinctive made possible by our intentional, Christ-centered community of believers. The very way we do residence life, have chapel, enforce visitation hours, and set community standards is driven by a purposeful ethic of spiritual formation. A Christian education of this nature should deepen an individual’s ability and desire to serve God and humanity. Many institutions can teach ability—skills or processes or patterns of thinking—but a real education changes students at the core of what they believe and what they desire. This is the distinctive that we as Christian student development professionals should define ourselves by because it is an invaluable outcome.

    But just like every other area of an institution, the burden of proof lies with us. As professional educators, we should be continually assessing the effectiveness of our efforts, so providing evidence of impact should not be difficult. We cannot promise character development any more than we can guarantee deep learning, but we can measure our effectiveness in creating the sweeping life change we regularly witness in students’ lives. However, unlike academic faculty who undergo the extrinsic process of accreditation, most student personnel practitioners have less experience defending their cause with hard data. 

    Because these dynamics are not as easily demonstrated through multiple-choice surveys, we too often shy away from measuring them at all. The assessment movement decrees, however, that we broaden our methodological expertise to learn to use essays and interviews and other qualitative avenues to evaluate change. This fact presents a learning curve for our profession, a need for self-sought professional development in the area of assessment. This is a great opportunity for partnering with proven assessors in the academic realm—even using some of their courses as embedded assessment tools for our department’s learning objectives. By developing a robust assessment methodology and ingraining it in within normal processes, we give ourselves future opportunity for continued impact.

    Innovation

    Demonstrating past effectiveness is not enough, however. Instead of standing stationary in the path of shifting trends, student development professionals need to be innovative in adapting its field for new educational mediums.  What does student development look like in an online setting? For a three-year degree? During summer intensive courses?

    The American education model is changing; no one can ignore that fact. Even if the four-year institution does not dissolve, the way education is delivered within that setting will continue to evolve. In ten years, we will have more online classes, more students completing degrees in less than four years, and more adult learners. Higher education is changing at a significant rate. The question is, will student development change along with it?

    One key for innovation within student development is identifying our fundamental processes or goals and then developing creative means of adapting them for new settings. Two essential elements that spring to mind are the freedom for students to ask big questions and the opportunity to teach spiritual and relational maturity through communal life. Although “communal life” looks differently for students taking 20 hours a semester or attending online, both of these fundamentals can still be carried out by the proactive professional if done so through collaboration with academic faculty.  Many student affairs practitioners are natural discussion group leaders, and many more possess a wealth of knowledge on student issues that are well suited for workshops and presentations. Using these strengths as entry points gives them access to deeper personal relationships with students, bringing about long-lasting impact and deep change. Intentionality of this nature is required to connect with students who have more demands on their time and resources than ever before.

    Denouement

    It is because I believe in what we have to offer that I strongly feel we need to fight for our field. Our departments and institutions must continue to find creative ways to deliver the fundamental benefits of Christian student development without incurring the overwhelming cost. By regularly demonstrating effectiveness, improving quality, and innovating for new mediums, student development can remain a significant and life-changing element of a college education—regardless of what form that education may take. If our students are going to carry away significant debt, I believe it should be an intrinsic indebtedness to their institutions for the quality education they received, not a tangible financial burden that weighs them down for years to come. 

    Josh Wymore serves as the Assistant Director of First Year Experience and Campus Activities at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

    References

    Finance. (2010, August 27). The Chronicle of Higher Education, LVII(1), 8-9.

    Mangan, K. (2010, October 1). Texas governor treats colleges like businesses. The Chronicle of Higher Education, LVII(6), A13, A15-A17.

    Pilon, M. (2010, February 2). Earning gap between college and high school grads small. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/ article/SB100014240527487038224045750 19082819966538.html

     

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