The Grim Future of Private Religious Schools (and Some Ideas)

A few weeks ago the small private liberal arts school I attended and taught at began a project to build a new student center. This meant that the old student center had to come down. I have to admit that I was very sad as I stood at the demolition site and snapped this picture of the ruins of a building that held such special memories.

But what concerns me far more is the future of schools like the one I attended. Part of my worry has to do with the declining enrollment problem facing all colleges. The pool of high school graduates in America has been steadily declining for some time, and it is estimated that this trend will continue through 2030. Because of these deflated numbers, analysts predict that as many as half of the colleges and universities in the country could close their doors in the next 10-15 years.

But the general demographic trend is not the greatest source of my anxiety. I am especially concerned about the future of private religious colleges. Schools like the one I attended and taught at typically have codes of conduct that reflect the religious beliefs of the institution. Such codes often include specific language about moral issues like sexual conduct.

And therein lies the problem. There is a growing climate of hostility in America to the traditional Christian view of sexual ethics. There is no better way to illustrate this increasing anti-religious bigotry than the recent New Yorker column lamenting the “infiltration” of Chick-fil-A into New York because the owner has donated to pro-traditional marriage causes. (For some great satirical responses to this article, check out this Babylon Bee piece and this blog post).

And the assault on religious freedom is only going to grow stronger. Multiple polls demonstrate that the “Millennial” generation does not hold a robust view of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. A 2015 Pew Research survey revealed that “four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.” A 2017  Brookings study found that 44% of college students do not believe that the First Amendment protects “hate speech.” And since the pro-LGBTQ movement believes that any statements defending traditional marriage or critiquing same-sex actions constitute “hate speech,” you can see where this mindset will lead. I’m no prophet, but I will make this prediction: within my lifetime there will be a serious movement to repeal the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video.

At the moment, private religious schools are permitted to maintain these codes of conduct and still receive federal money because of our nation’s strong commitment to religious freedom. Such schools can apply for what’s called a “Title IX Exemption.” This is why private religious schools can maintain their status with government accreditation agencies, which is crucial in order for students to receive federal grant and loan money such as I relied upon to go to college.

But this exemption is under assault. Schools that have applied for this exemption are accused of perpetuating “the harms of religion-based bigotry.” And it is clear that the pro-LGBTQ lobby intends to strip this protection of religious freedom away from such schools, a prospect that the government’s solicitor general admitted during the Obergefell case. That leads me to another prediction: the next Democratic administration will strip the Title IX exemption of its power to protect the religious freedom of schools.

Let me pause to address the issue of “religion-based bigotry” before I go further. Some of you may think that codes against same-sex conduct are no different than codes against interracial dating and marriage that many schools of a previous generation enforced. But the two issues could not be more different. One has to do with conduct, the other has to do with race. A school that says that sex is reserved for the one man-one woman relationship of marriage is not bigoted against gay students. The code applies to all students, gay or straight. Whatever the person’s orientation, the same rule applies to everyone’s conduct. Such a rule that has to do with behavior is totally dissimilar with a rule that has to do with race. Sadly, many schools did have such racist rules, and the fact that those sinful and hateful rules are now being used to club all adherents of traditional morality over the head is reason #2,182 not to be a racist if you are a Christian.

All of this means that the “dark clouds of Mordor” are growing more ominous by the moment. If this exemption is taken away, then the federal government will be able to threaten schools with the loss of accreditation unless they change their codes of conduct. Those schools that refuse to bow the knee to Baal will lose accreditation, and with it all federal loan and grant money for students. Additionally, students who graduate with unaccredited degrees may find it hard to be hired, especially if the company is “woke” to progressive social causes. This will be the end of many private religious schools.

So, what to do? How can private religious schools navigate between the Scylla of falling enrollment and Charybdis of federal decertification?

It will be a mistake for schools to search for mere short-term solutions. Yes, you can temporarily inflate enrollment numbers by adding sports teams, with the incoming revenue stream of federal loan and grant money for which many athletes qualify. But when (not if) accreditation is lost, this money will vanish overnight. Nor will it help to look for cost-cutting measures with faculty salaries and benefits. The last thing a small school needs in these troubled times is a demoralized faculty and staff. Nor will it help to address the problem with cosmetic changes to the campus. This will not be sufficient to address the demographic shift of available high school students.

Instead, here are some things these schools can do:

  1. Schools should wean off all federal money, including student grant and loan money, as soon as possible. As Carl Trueman has written, “Given the financial significance that the federal student loan system has for most colleges, this process will be painful and difficult for many, where it is possible at all. Yet it is vital.” Schools should use the next two years as a reprieve and phase out all programs that are unsustainable without this money.
  2. Schools should look for students from non-traditional sources. While the number of high school graduates is falling, there are many other potential student populations. Instead of waiting for students to come to campus, the campus needs to go to the students, with on-line and hybrid course offerings, extension and satellite campuses, and other such options. The on-campus population may decline, but the overall student population and revenue stream can grow.
  3. Schools should create job placement networks for their students. Schools like the one I attended have a tight-knit network of alumni. This is the perfect situation for collecting databases of alumni and friends of the school that can post job openings for students. Imagine the power of recruiting a student who knows that when he or she is finished with classes, the school will actively seek to set them up with a prospective employer. This can ameliorate the stigma of a non-accredited diploma.

And even if it should be the case that private religious schools do not survive, there is still hope. And the fact is, families and churches should not totally delegate responsibility for rearing children to such institutions to begin with. If these schools, which are adjuncts to the home, no longer exist, our children can still flourish in the faith, so long as we do our job. But it would be a shame if future generations did not have the opportunity that my wife and I enjoyed to receive an education in a faith-affirming environment. There are challenges ahead, but they can be met with resolve, imagination, and love.

 

1 Comment

  1. You are radical. Spot on.

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