Be Like Brigham

One of the best-attended sessions at a January meeting of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), was titled “Is Government Funding Replaceable?”

What occasioned the question was the intersection of changing attitudes towards LGBT issues, along with human sexuality more generally, and historic Christian teaching on the subject. And nowhere is the friction created by the intersection felt more keenly than on the campuses of evangelical colleges.

While names like Jack Phillips and Baronelle Stutzman are practically household names in many Christian circles, the fact is that few Christians are likely to find themselves in a position that remotely resembles theirs. Many of us live in jurisdictions that don’t have sexual orientation/gender identity (SOGI) laws or even if we do, we rarely, if ever, find ourselves in situations where these laws come into play.

For the members of the CCCU, the issue is inescapable. In recent years there has been a push to interpret the words “on the basis of sex” in Title IX as including “on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”

Among those promoting this interpretation was the previous administration whose Department of Education sent out a letter informing schools that discrimination “based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status,” constituted a violation of Title IX.

While the policy was reversed by the current administration, it got the CCCU’s attention. For starters, as Carl Trueman wrote in First Things, “the underlying cultural commitments that made Title IX expansions plausible remain in place.”

(Trueman is correct but you know what would forestall “Title IX expansions” for the foreseeable future? A declaration from Congress that when Title IX, which is a creation of Congress, uses the word “sex” it means just that, sex. It could be a rider attached to a “must-pass” piece of legislation. I keep hearing about all this great “access” Christians have. That, to my knowledge, this hasn’t even come up shows how hollow that boasting about “access” really is.)

Thus, member schools face a potential choice between federal funding and upholding the theological and moral commitments that ostensibly sets them apart from non-Evangelical institutions.

To understand why, indulge me a bit of pedantry while I describe how colleges and universities, in particular private ones, pay their bills. Schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – to name but three – have huge endowments. The annual return on these endowments at places like Princeton is so large that the schools could arguably not charge tuition and still meet its budgetary needs without reducing the size of their endowments. And this is before you take into account additional gifts.

Other elite schools aren’t quite that rich but the return on their endowments pay a significant part of the bills. For elite schools, Title IX poses no financial threat.

Then there’s everybody else, a group that includes virtually every CCCU member. These schools depend on tuition and fees to keep their doors open and that means that they’re dependent on federal student aid such as guaranteed student loans and federal grants.

How dependent are they? It’s difficult to tell with any precision because, as compared to places like Princeton or Notre Dame, financial information from many CCCU members is, to put it charitably, opaque: lots of glossy brochures with little financial substance.

By way of guestimate, Dale Kemp, the CFO at Wheaton College told NPR that “40 or 50 or maybe even 60 percent” of these schools’ budgets “are really coming from the federal government.”

Even if the federal government wasn’t fiddling with Title IX, this dependence on federal money, which overwhelmingly takes the form of guaranteed student loans, would be a problem. Leaving college – “leaving” and “graduating” aren’t the same thing – with, on average more than $30,000 in student loan debt has long-term consequences for both individuals and society.

Christian college grads are hardly exempt from these consequences. As one such grad told Christianity Today, “I don’t feel swindled. I needed the nourishment I received from my professors and the community I found there . . . But I’m still paying the price almost 10 years later, and it’s affecting my marriage and now, even my kids.”

Add the theological challenge that accompanies dependence on federal money, and it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Christian higher education, as evangelicals understand that term, is unsustainable.

How unsustainable? Using data from a 2012 report, “The Financially Sustainable University” by Jeff Denneen and Tom Dretler, Chris Gerhz of Bethel University found that only 36 percent of CCCU members qualified as “financially sustainable” by their criteria. Thirty-two percent were “at risk” and another 32 percent were “unsustainable.”

You can quibble here and there with which school belongs in what category but the “unsustainable” label still applies. Again, this is before you take political/regulatory pressure into account.

So, what do we do about it? Two things come to mind: one that is unpopular and the other that is unlikely.

The first is to acknowledge that there are too many Christian colleges. Not “possibly too many” or even “probably too many,” but “too many.” The same demographic trends – the decline in “the pool of the college-bound” population – that led Denneen and Dretler to label the financial model for higher education in general as unsustainable has not spared Christian colleges.

As Gerhz summed it up, “evangelical colleges [are] slightly more at risk than other schools, though not dramatically so.”

Closures and mergers are in the future. It’s inescapable. The only question is “how orderly and thought-out will the process be?” Will it be denial followed by collapse or will it be based on an honest appraisal of one, what evangelical colleges provide that kids can’t get elsewhere; two, are we willing to pay for it; and, three, how much are we willing to pay for it?

There’s no reason this can’t be done. There’s a well-known example of a conservative religious tradition that has done it: Brigham Young University.

If you set aside the whole Mormon thing, in many respects BYU resembles a huge evangelical college. It has a strict honor code, religious services, dress, and grooming standards, and, like many Christian colleges, lots of “define the relationship” conversations.

It’s also a nationally-ranked university whose degrees are worth something in the marketplace.

What it doesn’t have is students graduating with crushing debt loads. For LDS students, tuition is $5620 a year, and the total cost, including about $2300 in what BYU calls “personal expenses,” is less than $19,000. (For non-Mormons, the cost is about $24,000 a year.)

BYU can do all this because the Mormon church has defined what it wants its kids to get from college and is willing to pay for it. BYU has a substantial endowment but according to its non-opaque financial statement, nearly sixty percent of its operating budget is covered by the LDS church itself. Those funds, in turn, come from the tithes and offerings of ordinary Mormons.

In contrast, less than 20 percent of the BYU budget is paid for by student tuition. When you factor well-off Mormon families who are paying full-freight, it’s reasonable to infer that relatively little of BYU’s budget comes from the federal government. If Title IX were to rear its ugly head again, BYU could easily make do without federal money.

And that’s how you build a sustainable religious university. Is it replicable elsewhere? Why not? The approximately 4.5 million practicing Mormons kick in an average of $134 each year to educate 33,000 of their best and brightest.

You read that correctly: $134.

Assume that there are 25 million practicing evangelicals and that they all gave on average $134 to educate their best and brightest. That’s $3.35 billion with a “b.” Or enough for three BYUs, i.e., 100,000 kids.

To answer the question that troubled CCCU officials, government money is replaceable. The more important question is whether we are willing to do what it takes to replace it.


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