’22 in Review: Status of College Closings and Christian Higher Education

The good news? Christian schools have a golden opportunity to grow.

By Alex Chediak Published on December 26, 2022

As another year comes to a close, where are we at with the closings of colleges? That’s not my smoothest segue ever, but the idea of a “higher ed bubble” bursting has become something of a regular theme in recent years. In 2017 Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen predicted that half of colleges would close within a decade. In 2015 Moody’s Investor Services warned that “the inability of small colleges to increase their revenue will result in triple the number of closures in the coming year.” In 2014, private colleges offered freshmen an average discount rate of 48%, an all-time high. That figure has since crept up to 54%.

Past Closures: 2004-2021

Still, the worst has yet to materialize. Thirty-five colleges and universities closed their doors in 2021. That’s a 70% drop from 2016, when a peak of 120 colleges shuttered. So that 2015 Moody report was on the money. But the trend has since died off a bit:

About 80% of the schools that have closed since 2004 have been for-profits. What’s now gone is 15% of the almost 6,000 institutions we still have. A lot less than 50%. But it’s still a problem. What happens to the students at colleges that close? Fewer than half ever re-enroll. That’s sad because they’re unlikely to get much benefit from an unearned degree. They’ve dumped money and time into their training, during years in which they could have been doing something else.

Might College Closures Increase?

Two warning signs loom on the horizon. One, we’ve not recovered from the COVID-prompted enrollment drop. A tight labor market may have something to do with it. College enrollment tends to rise in times of greater unemployment. Two, declining birthrates in the U.S. point to a demographic cliff in 2025. How much of a cliff? It depends on the region; some states are worse that others. But overall, Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, warns that “the college-going population will drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter.”

Though the birth-rate decline means a smaller undergraduate market, faith-based schools have a unique opportunity to attract a bigger share of that shrinking market.

Then there are some wild cards to consider. In the last few years, a growing list of big-name employers have removed the college degree requirement for some jobs. Whether this trend continues as the economy cools is anyone’s guess. But the public increasingly questions the value of college. Positive sentiment has especially dropped among center-right Americans. Since that’s where many faith-based institutions have historically attracted students, let’s turn our attention there.

Opportunities for Faith-Based Schools

When it comes to college, families want to see the value — the return on investment. They want their kids to achieve financial independence soon after graduation. Faith-based families have an additional concern: The cultural influences their kids will experience during college. Students want to see the relevance — they crave connections between the classroom and their career aspirations. Educators who make these connections win points with their students.

Though the birth-rate decline means a smaller undergraduate market, faith-based schools have a unique opportunity to attract a bigger share of that shrinking market.

Principled Admissions Decisions. Post-COVID, many students are entering college underprepared. Essential skills are missing. How to write an essay. Or a research paper with legit references. Or perform basic algebra and trigonometry. This puts colleges in a bind. Do you remediate the students, forcing them to take a year’s worth of pre-college courses, to learn what high school should have taught them? That would push back their graduation date — assuming they make it that far. By adding an extra set of hoops to jump through, some say they’re less likely to make it. On the other hand, if you throw them into courses they’re not prepared for, you’re setting them up to fail. You need to have a strong set of academic supports — peer tutoring, advising, access to instructors’ notes — or whatever will equip the underprepared students to succeed.

Faith-based schools can confront this challenge with unique honesty. First, by making principled admissions decisions. There needs to be some bar, some kind of vetting, so that you’re bringing in students who are willing to do the work. It’s important to maintain and foster a positive culture of learning among the students, not to mention a faith-friendly culture.

That won’t be the right fit for everyone. It’s perhaps counter-intuitive: Turning some away can lead to more growth. It’s true because you can’t risk losing what differentiates you. You can’t risk losing what makes you unique, losing the very reason students have historically been attracted. The brand of the school as a place where faith and learning are central, that brand must be protected. If it isn’t, you’ll lose trust with key constituents over time.

Education over consumerism. Faith-based schools can say that a students’ moral development — virtue, character, resilience, grit, and a deep sense of personal responsibility — is more important than their immediate satisfaction or emotional comfort. To educate students is to lead them forth into what is good. “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). We are about training students to “love the Lord (their) God with all (their) heart and with all (their) soul and with all (their) strength and with all (their) mind” (Luke 10:27). And if non-Christian students are admitted, the goal is to show them that the Christian faith is both credible and satisfying. While also training them academically and vocationally.

Christian universities care about the kind of persons their students are becoming. We want our graduates to become virtuous citizens, and for their employability to flow from that virtue. The discipline-specific training matters, but it must be built on a solid foundation. We can’t just fill minds. We must shape hearts, knowing that from the heart flow the springs of life (Prov. 4:23).

Non-Wokeness. The left-leaning tilt of higher education is well established. Among faculty, Democrats dramatically outnumber Republicans, especially in the humanities and social sciences. In fact, the tilt has increased in recent years and is highest among younger faculty. As a political monoculture has arisen, viewpoint diversity has decreased, leading to a cancel culture in some places. Though Christian students can succeed anywhere, the negativity, the hostility they’ll experience on some campuses towards their faith is greater now than in the past. Parents looking for universities where their family’s values aren’t attacked have good reason to zero in on faith-based schools.

Of late there have been fierce battles over whether this Christian school or that Christian school has “gone woke.” What we’re learning is that it’s bad for business if folks think you’re woke. If you’re going to be a Christian school, then be decidedly, historically Christian. Engage progressive ideas honestly and winsomely, but know who you are. Know what you believe, why you believe it, and help your students to live in the light of it. You won’t look like the state university down the road. But why would you want to? If you’re asking parents to pay a premium, give them something distinctive.

I’m bullish about faith-based colleges that keep these distinguishing features in mind. It’s what I want for my kids. And I don’t think I’m alone.


Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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