Today’s guest post is from Perry L. Glanzer and Ted Cockle. Glanzer is professor of educational foundations at Baylor University where he is also a resident research fellow with the Institute for Studies of Religion. Ted Cockle is completing a PhD in higher education studies and leadership at Baylor. Both are co-authors of the forthcoming book Christ-Enlivened Student Affairs: A Guide to Christian Thinking and Practice in the Field (Abilene Christian University Press).

One of Perry’s students observed in his Christian higher education class, “I see Baylor is going to cut $64 million to $80 million from its budget next year.” Then he asked, “You have talked a lot about Christ animating learning this semester, so what would it mean to take a Christian approach to budget cutting?” His question is a good one. Unfortunately, in light of COVID-19, Christian higher education leaders now need to be prepared with a thoughtful answer.

Why Is COVID-19 So Dangerous to Colleges?

Before we consider this question, it might be helpful to understand why the COVID-19 crisis is so dangerous to higher education generally. Although private institutions charging $40,000 or more a year seem to make a lot of money, most colleges and universities operate on increasingly thin margins—margins thin enough that even a 5 percent decrease in first-year enrollment (a mere 29 students for a college of 2,300) could lead to budget cuts and potentially to layoffs.

These challenges have been exacerbated for private colleges by unrelenting competition, such as state programs that aim to provide free tuition for low-income students to state institutions only. To compete, private institutions give significant tuition discounts to achieve their needed enrollment. In fact, few enrollees outside of international students pay full price. This precarious situation led a writer at Forbes to predict the closure of 25 percent of all colleges within the next decade. And that was in 2018.

Expenses remain largely fixed in our current crisis, while revenue from tuition and other sources will decrease significantly. Colleges had to refund housing, meal plans, parking tickets, student fees, and other charges associated with living on campus. Revenue-generating summer camps and similar programs have disappeared. Finally, existing students may not return this fall. Entering students may choose not to come. The result will be a reduction in revenue that will be somewhere between significant and cataclysmic.

Amazoning and Walmarting Christian Higher Education

Because of their size, and the competition described above, many Christian institutions have had to survive with limited resources even before the coronavirus. The major outliers have been larger institutions that can take advantage of economies of scale, such as Baylor, and institutions that have cashed in on the online education phenomenon (e.g., Liberty University and Grand Canyon University). Yet even these institutions were preparing for the coming enrollment plunge anticipated in the mid-2020s, when the number of potential college students in the United States will decrease dramatically.

COVID-19 will only exacerbate these trends, producing a “Walmarting” and “Amazoning” of Christian higher education. Every institution will have to make budget cuts, and small Christian liberal arts colleges with small endowments—like a mom and pop grocer or an independent bookstore—may not survive. The giants and the major online educators will likely endure, and perhaps even prosper, as smaller institutions shut down. Christian colleges and universities are not uniquely susceptible to the effects of coronavirus, but they will likely feel the effects in unique ways.

Responding Christianly

How does Christ animate budget and personnel decisions that will become necessary in the coming storm?

Cut Budgets with Transparent Honesty

During this time, educational leaders need to communicate honestly and frequently with faculty, staff, and students. We can think of three Christian institutions recently (here, here, and here) in which the faculty and staff were either totally blind-sided by the financial health of the institution or faced severe repercussions due to it. In another case not listed, the president was admired by all for his scholarly work, but his lack of financial candor has left a tragic and mixed legacy. In contrast, we can fortunately point to Baylor’s institutional leadership in these months as a model. Our president has communicated frequently and honestly about the financial difficulties—including the prospect of layoffs—facing the university as a result of COVID-19.

The tendency of Christian organizations towards “nice-ness” will not serve us well now. It may seem “nice” to shield employees from dire circumstances, but it is not ultimately the most loving mode of operation. Instead, leaders should seek to be loving truth-tellers, sharing what they can as soon as they can. This gives employees time to adjust their expectations, start making alternative plans, and think creatively about possible solutions.

Re-Focus on Mission

Budget cutting can provide a unique opportunity to return our focus to our core mission. What are we doing that is not central—or even distracts from—our mission of Christ-animated learning? When we recall that medieval Christian universities grew out of monasteries, we recognize that we have added much to the Christian educational experience beyond its original simplicity. Indeed, there are models of simple Christian institutions from which we can learn.

Even though surviving institutions will ideally maintain their unique contributions, we could all use a big dose of simplicity. We also need innovation and institutional diversity—residential liberal arts models are effective, but they are not the only means by which to cultivate the minds and shape the affections of college students.

Faithfully Fight to Stay Alive, But Don’t Lose Faith to Live

Churches should help quality institutions faithfully fight to stay alive during these times. But we must also remember that, unlike the church, God has made no promises that Christian colleges will survive until Christ’s return. In a fallen world, few of our creations last for long. The Oxfords and Cambridges that exist for 800 years are the exception, not the norm.

Thus, sometimes fighting the good fight means letting go of some faculty and staff, or even shutting the doors. When it comes to layoffs or institutional closures (and those will happen), we should mourn, honor, and remember that which is lost. Some faculty and staff will have lost employment at schools to which they gave their hearts and minds. If they have to leave school, students will have lost a community of intellectual and spiritual cultivation. In the case of closure or a significant reduction in size, alumni will have lost an institution to which they have given their love, their time, and their money.

Final Thought

Through COVID-19, God has called all of us to a time of stewardship, suffering, and mourning. May we not give in to the temptation to compromise Christian convictions in order to preserve what we had before, as individuals or as institutions.

Fortunately, Christians have proven creative in building colleges and universities throughout the world. Christians will always be in the education business, as we seek to love God with all of our minds. Being faithful to that calling may look very different in the post-coronavirus landscape of Christian higher education.