Let me give you a quick a snapshot of what happened during the most difficult season of leadership I have ever experienced as a leader in higher education:
- 25% loss of our operating budget in 30 days
- Enrolment swung from 15% growth to 10% drop (25% swing)
- We had to lay off 30% of our staff
- Our Financial reserves had been exhausted
- With the remaining staff we were as much as 9 weeks behind on payroll at one point
Surprisingly, this was not a result of the recent pandemic, this was 10 years ago! God had entrusted us with a significant season of affliction; it was painful, it was hard, and it forced us to ask some really difficult questions that God used to refine us through an incredibly difficult season. These are questions that are just as significant now as the world of higher education is in a state of serious disruption and refinement.
Recent reporting from inside higher education suggests that colleges could see as much as a 20% drop in enrollment. Al Mohler, in a recent address, suggests that 20% of Christian colleges will not survive, and that is a conservative estimate. An off-the-record conversation with a Trustee member of local Christian University suggested that they suspect a few legacy institutions will survive, and a number of non-traditional will make it, but everything in between will be carnage.
Yet in the midst of this, do not despair! There is hope! Based on our experience at Eternity Bible College, there is a path forward for higher education through this season of disruption. But it will require a radical shift in decision making for both students and institutions of higher education.
Here are three questions that must be asked to survive.
What is the Goal?
What is the primary goal of the institution? Is it simply survival? Is it to provide an experience? Or is it to fulfill the mission of the institution? This may sound like an obvious question, but if advancing the mission of the institution is not primary, the outcome is already determined, and the only variable is how long it will take before the inevitable collapse happens.
In an era where a lot of institutions have attempted to cast a wider net and market to a broader audience or expand programs and experiences to attract more students, these types of past decisions can unintentionally cause mission drift.
What We Did
Initially, we had a donor funding nearly half of our budget. This created a form of fiscal security which allowed us to expand in ways that were connected but not crucial to our mission, and in many ways this allowed us to accomplish our mission. But when we lost that funding, we were forced to consider if there was another way to accomplish our mission. We had to ask: were we committed to the mission or committed to the model we created?
We concluded that our model was flexible, so we scaled down our already minimalist campus, we further streamlined our already thin staff, and we cut some of our programming. In short, we focused very narrowly on accomplishing our mission, and we let go of a particular model of how we pursued our mission.
What You Need to Ask
Is the goal accomplishing the mission? Or is the goal simply survival? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to accomplish the mission (programs, facilities, etc.)?
Where is Our Identity?
It makes sense to want to cultivate “brand identity.” Having a strong brand nurtures brand loyalty, loyalty leads to brand advocates/evangelism. This certainly makes sense in the corporate world. But where is our primary identity? As a follower of Jesus, our identity should be first and foremost in Christ, and that is expressed through the church.
Unfortunately, many schools work hard at cultivating an institutional identity with an unintended consequence. Like it or not, schools start competing with the church. This is not to suggest there are poor motives here, but most of these activities create a significant financial burden to the institution and need to be addressed.
What We Did
We made a radical commitment to fulfilling our mission of serving the church. We created an educational model that allowed for the church to be the center of learning.
What You Need to Ask
What do we want our primary identity to be? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to cultivate that identity? Are we creating an idolatrous identity for students which competes with their identity in Christ through the Church?
What is the Chief End of Man?
We all know the answer to the catechism question, but sadly education’s chief end rarely aligns with man’s chief end. Current education would have us believe that financial success through a “good” job is man’s chief end. Instead we need to recover and reintegrate glorifying God as the chief end of man and therefore the chief end of education.
Education needs to recenter around the idea that every human’s primary calling is to put God on display and that our workplaces are simply one of many contexts for doing so.
What We Did
We determined to adopt a very old model of education. Rather than prepare people for a particular job/career, we chose to focus on cultivating the right kind of people. People who loved God, who knew how to think & respond biblically. This is only possible if the biblical story is actually known. So, we focused on biblical training and trusted the hard skills of particular jobs could be learned on the job.
What You Need to Ask
Have we reduced education to what kind of job someone can get? Desperate times call for radical commitment and radical decision making. Biblical higher education can make it through this crisis of Covid, but it requires bold, forward thinking, not trying to go back to the models that worked before.
Here is something God uses to encourage me during rough times: during that earlier challenging season, I was meeting with a prospective partnering organization. Upon hearing our story of hardship their CEO exclaimed, “This is great news!’ I was understandably confused, but he followed up with “Given all you have been through…there is no good reason for you to exist; yet here you are, clearly God has something for you!”
So take heart. You are still here, clearly God has something for you!
Spencer MacCuish is the President of Eternity Bible College and regularly teaches courses in Worldview, Apologetics, and Counseling. He’s an amateur coffee roaster and will gladly talk for hours about the craft of roasting the perfect bean.