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While the previous posts have been discussing higher education in general and considering possible Christian responses, this post will focus on Christian Colleges and Universities. First, I want to acknowledge that these institutions are endeavoring to do a great thing in providing a solid, biblically based education. But that does not mean that they are doing it well, or even properly. The question needs to be asked: Are Christian higher education institutions remaining faithful to Jesus?

A few months ago, Christianity Today devoted an entire issue to the topic of Christian Higher Education, titling it How to Save the Christian College. It contained many helpful articles for anyone interested or involved in the development and maintenance of higher education institutions. It was also informative and thought provoking for anyone who’s been considering whether they should even go to college, and especially a Christian College.

The cover story, written by Perry L. Glanzer and titled The Missing Factor in Higher Education, claims that the missing factor is character development. The historic universities gave up their quest for truth and the moral/ethical/spiritual formation of students in favor of creating information specialists. Students no longer go to college to get a well-rounded education to benefit them in all aspects of their life. They go to learn the necessary information to succeed in a particular career. But he believes there is still hope for Christian Higher Education as it looks to its roots and renews interest and focus on cultivating wisdom and character in students.

As great as many Christian colleges are at providing good character forming education, we must also examine the structures and methods by which that education is being delivered. Is it God honoring to create an institution that is built on the backs of people going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt? Is this something that is carefully considered and concluded that it is God pleasing? Or, is such a model simply acquiescing to the world’s approach to what education is? What do you think? Does the end justify the means?

In light of our recent posts on college debt, two things are very clear:

    1. We need to learn how to shepherd/lead each other on how to get out of debt.
    2. We need to learn how to shepherd/lead each other on how to avoid debt in the first place.

As believers, we have a responsibility to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), but how far does this truly go? Should we actually carry one another’s financial burden? Should we actually consider helping members of the body of Christ in order to alleviate their debt load? Or is the debt load they carry just their own responsibility and a consequence of their decision-making?

The Church today needs to desperately consider how to shepherd people out of student debt. But, just as important, if not more so, is the responsibility the Church has today to shepherd people through the process of going into student debt. Too many young people in the churches throughout America are being left to navigate the waters of financing higher education on their own. The same students who only qualify for a $500-$1,000 credit card limit are able to qualify for tens of thousands in student loans. And they are doing so without much instruction.

Unfortunately, there is a less than cautious approach to considering a college/university. All too often an attitude of entitlement is exposed through the process of choosing a school. Rather than carefully weighing the cost, students make decisions based upon desire and hope instead of wisdom. Sometimes students and parents need to be told that certain schools are simply not a good fit financially.

Student debt is also having a tremendous impact upon God’s church. A friend of mine recently took a survey of roughly 25 people from his home church. Of the 25 there were 10 or 11 couples and a few single people with an average age in the early 30s. This group combined had over $470, 000 in student loan debt. It is daunting to consider how much student debt has been accumulated in churches throughout the country and then reflect on how all of those resources could be used.

In addition to debt affecting local churches, student debt is also having a global impact. The primary reason mission agencies are now turning away applicants is because of student debt. One such missions agency just rescinded their Bible requirement. When asked why they did this, the agency simply stated that they got tired of requiring a certain number of units in Bible knowing that those units were often contributing to the debt load of the applicants. It just seemed to be a more viable option to drop a Bible requirement and try to provide training for missionaries while on the field, through the mission.

Should the church continue to turn a blind eye to this issue? Or even worse, should the church continue to unwittingly encourage this? Or should the church actively engage the issue and actually shepherd people through all aspects of student debt?

Whatever happened to the purpose of a college or university being to educate students with truth that will shape their hearts and minds? Or was that ever the intention? It seems that the shift in education to an experience is connected with another type of problem; the idea that making money and having a good reputation is more important than what kinds of graduates are actually being produced.

Inputs vs. Outputs
It is common in many areas of life to assume that our success is based on or directly proportionate to our amount of activity. A man goes to the gym and thinks he is successful because he did a lot of repetitions with a large amount of weight, but his form was bad. A woman thinks she did a good thing because she gave ten dollars to a man at the gas station who said he was in need, but she didn’t ask him his name or find out how he got there. Educational institutions pump large amounts of money into all kinds of things, including instruction, but often stop short of asking what the activities and instruction produce.

What does it mean to educate someone? If a school has a large library, does it mean people are educated? If a school has 20 nationally recognized professors who have each written two books, does it mean students are being educated? If a major university builds a seven million dollar basketball arena, does it mean students are learning?

The real question should be, “Can a student demonstrate competency with the knowledge that was gained?”

Institutions don’t like the implications of a move towards purely outcome-based assessment because it doesn’t guarantee a revenue stream. Someone could learn elsewhere and come in with competency. The institutions will begin to lose their illusion of power over knowledge and will be forced to more effectively evaluate both students as well as their own institutions.

The hesitation towards measuring competency is also because many colleges and universities are more like businesses. They care about money. So they end up dragging their feet when it comes to assessing themselves, unless they think assessment will somehow bring in more money. When you have an agenda that is anything other than making an honest evaluation of yourself, you are sure to make yourself look better than you actually are. That is exactly what happens, and it’s why colleges market themselves as a place to get a great experience instead of a great education.

Why should we not go even further, and push educational institutions to demonstrate not only what kind of things students can do with what they learn, but also demonstrate what kinds of people they are becoming? Aristotle said, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Paul the Apostle said, “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart, a clear conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). If you give a corrupt, arrogant, entitled, greedy, self-indulgent young person the ability to navigate the business world or to build jet engines, what do you think he will produce? If you intend to shape the heart and the mind with knowledge of the truth in humility, you will get an entirely different result.

What do you think? Do you, or most people you know measure the effectiveness of a college primarily by its activities and its longstanding tradition, or by the types of graduates it produces and how they are able to live?

Unfortunately, higher education has seen a shift in recent years towards college being more about a life experience than an education. One of our students at Eternity recently surveyed a large group of other college students attending schools throughout a nearby county to better understand their culture. One respondent said something to the effect that “I only have two months left of college and I need to make the most of it. I’m going to party every night.” That same person’s parent agreed that it’s just what you do during that time of life so she might as well do it now while she can.

The Cost of Experience
The implications of such a shift are significant and can be evidenced in the budgets of many institutions of higher education. Large amounts of money are pumped into athletics, administrative and operational costs that have very little to with student instruction. Gaining an “experience” isn’t necessarily bad, except that the typical college experience does little to prepare students for real life in society. Knowing that the average student is leaving their collegiate program with $30,000 in debt, I think a series of questions need to be asked to really consider why education costs are so high and whether the experience is worth it:

    1.How much money is spent on athletics?
    A study of college budgets (both public and private) from 1998-2008 found that between 2005 and 2008, median athletic spending per student athlete was between four to ten times higher than median spending per student for education & related expenses. The follow up question is inevitable. Is it really right/just to have a number of students go into debt so that other students may play games?

    2. How much money is being spent on facilities & grounds?
    Is having a nice fountain, nicely manicured lawns & fresh flowers every week (yes, I know of multiple schools that plant new flowers weekly) worth students going into debt?

    3. What are the salaries of administrators? Most institutions are paying their administration strong six figure salaries, but those salaries are being funded on the backs of student debt.

    4. How much do institutions spend on research?
    A lot of people who have no business teaching classes are doing so simply to fund their research at universities. Students often suffer as they struggle to learn under instructors who are very intelligent, but are poor translators of knowledge.

    5. What is the real cost of instruction?
    The study already cited found that “among all types of institutions, the share of spending going to pay for the direct cost of instruction has declined slightly.” Did you catch that? While overall spending has increased dramatically, schools spend less on actual instruction of students!

These questions, along with many others, need to be answered. Are these things essential to higher education (yes, we need administration, but do they need to be paid that much?) or are these things simply adding to the cost of higher education & subsequently adding to the debt load of students?

The standard response is that the athletic programs & the facilities contribute to the recruitment of new students, which in turn provides additional revenue streams for the institution or that the athletic programs often generate revenue for schools (which is only true of top tier NCAA D1 football & basketball programs). But neither of these actually addresses the issue. These things contribute to the overall operating cost of the institution and do not contribute to the academic outcomes of the school. If they do, where’s the evidence? It would seem that modern institutions have been shaped to provide students with an experience rather than simply an education, and students are paying dearly for this.

There has been much attention recently given to the looming student debt crisis. Stories about coping with debt and the soaring cost of college are all too common. Some are even suggesting that this could be a pivotal issue in the upcoming elections. There are those suggesting that this is the next debt bubble to burst, while others are questioning the severity of the problem. Regardless, this is an issue that is growing in significance simply because of the amount of debt in question. Within the past year student loan debt surpassed credit card debt as the largest source of unsecured debt in the USA. With the average student completing their academic program carrying $30,000 of debt, the total amount is hovering right around $1 trillion, and it didn’t happen overnight.

Most of the discussions recently have focused on how to alleviate this debt. Some are suggesting allowing student loans to be included in the debt relief act, which would allow loans to be absolved through filing bankruptcy (most student loans currently are not absolved through filing bankruptcy). Others are recommending further government subsidizing, while others are proposing a myriad of other remedies. The problem is that each of these is merely addressing the symptom & none of these recommendations is actually getting to the cause of debt.

The Causes of Student Debt
Attention needs to be given to the actual cause of student loan debt. There are multiple causes for this sort of debt. Here are a few:

    1. Students & Families

    It is undeniable that students & families taking out loans is a primary cause for debt. Work needs to be done on actually educating people on the implications of graduating with debt (This will be addressed more fully in a later post).

    2. The Cost of Higher Education

    Academic institutions are being funded on the backs of student loans. More attention needs to be paid to the real cost of education, where the tuition dollars go and how things can be reformed in order to mitigate rising costs of higher education (more to come in a later post).

The average cost for tuition has increased 900% since 1978. Basically, once college became “affordable” for everyone following the Higher Education Act, the cost started to skyrocket.

There is no doubt that the symptoms of the problem are real. But, in order to rectify the situation, time and energy need to be devoted to identifying and delivering a solution that will eliminate the cause of the problem.

So, as we get this series rolling, can you identify any other potential causes for the student debt problem?

Also, if you have a few more minutes to spare, please take this brief survey and we’ll share the collected answers later in the series. Click here to take survey