Up to the Challenge: Addressing the Shifting Landscape of Christian Higher Education
Higher education in America is accelerating toward a cliff. Due to a “birth dearth,” the number of potential college students is declining and the demographics of eligible students are shifting faster than some institutions can adjust. At the same time, if education is seen merely as a means to landing a specific job, then the value of a broader liberal arts education is in question. And of concern for Christian colleges specifically, it has been well documented that we are now in a post-Christian culture, which raises its own unique challenges.
You don’t have to look far to find reports and articles detailing the harsh realities on the horizon for higher learning. In his 2018 article “Panicked Universities in Search of Students Are Adding Thousands of New Majors,” published in the leading higher education journal The Hechinger Report, Jon Marcus writes about how several colleges are creating increasingly specific degree or certificate programs in an effort to appeal to niche audiences of students. In the Midwest, “at least four colleges and universities….have added certificate or associate degree programs in beer fermentation, brewing, brew management and wine and viticulture technology, among the 41,446 degree or certificate programs colleges and universities have added since 2012.” These degrees and programs speak to the innovation that many are attempting in order to meet the declines in particular populations. Yet they are certainly a far cry from the holistic and moral development we strive to provide for Christians who will graduate from Wheaton and engage the culture in their spheres of influence.
Chronicling the closing of Sweet Briar University in his EducationNext article titled “Private Colleges in Peril,” Stephen Eide notes: “Enrollment is dwindling. Deficits are mounting. And more closures are looming: that’s the prediction of many higher education experts, who are concerned about the future of small private colleges in America.”
At the time of this writing, two New England colleges recently announced that they will no longer recruit first-year students to their campuses. Facing declining enrollments, tuition-driven institutions are announcing closures or mergers, cutting academic programs, and reducing faculty and staff positions in order to meet the budget demands caused by fewer students bringing their tuition dollars to college campuses.
With the cliff approaching, one must ask: In the years to come, how will Wheaton adapt to the changing demographic and cultural factors that are threatening higher education? How will we survive?
Decline in College-Aged Students
Since 2007, the nation’s total fertility rate has dropped more than 12 percent, and national demographic forecasts reveal the population of 18-year-olds has already begun to decline. The decline will be especially stark in the latter half of the 2020s. In his book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, Carleton College’s Professor of Social Sciences Nathan Grawe demonstrates how colleges have seen and will continue to see dramatic drops in enrollments, especially among current majority populations. This is not news to us. However, Grawe's in-depth factor analysis of fertility rates by ethnicity, migration, immigration patterns, and parental education and income levels challenges us to think comprehensively about the decline in college-aged students.
Grawe categorizes institutions of higher learning into the following sectors: two- and four-year public schools; regionally and nationally ranked colleges; and the elites, or hyper-selective universities. The data reveals that the drop in enrollment numbers varies significantly depending on the type of institution. According to Grawe, it is the regional institutions that rely heavily on their surrounding populations that will struggle more than the nationally ranked or elite universities. This is data worth noting, because 48 percent of Wheaton’s students come from the American Midwest, with about 22 percent from Illinois. Most demographers declare that this region will see a greater than 15 percent decline in populations seeking private education. When considering Illinois alone, the prognosis is sobering, with predictions that we will reach the “cliff” in 2025—18 years after the 2008 economic collapse—as a result of a dramatic drop in birth rates.
The good news, however, is that according to Grawe’s calculations, Wheaton fits into the nationally ranked grouping, meaning that change is coming but the predicted loss is not as great as it would be if we were simply a regional school. While Wheaton does have a strong regional presence, we draw promising students from across the country and the globe. While no college will be immune from the forthcoming demographic decline, the elites and nationally ranked colleges will not be as dramatically affected, given their reputations and endowments.
The average college prospect of the past—a white male from an upper-middle-class family living in the Northeast or Midwest—will not be the average college student of the future because populations in the United States have changed and will continue to change. Colleges and universities in the United States have traditionally depended upon students from the Northeast; yet Grawe’s research shows that there is no state in the Northeast right now with a fertility rate great enough to replace its own population. Internal migration also plays a role: People within the United States are moving from region to region like never before—trending away from the Pacific and Northeast coasts and into the South and West. Additionally, roughly a million people from outside the United States become lawful residents each year, including many from developing nations. Lastly, while overall fertility rates have declined likely due to the recession of 2008, this trend has not affected all ethnic and racial groups in the same way. While the country’s non-Hispanic white population declines, its Hispanic and Asian populations have risen considerably, guaranteeing a shift in the country’s average college-goer of the future.
Wheaton College is deeply aware of these shifting trends and is already taking measures to expand its student demographic, always with the goal of making Wheaton a more accurate image of the worldwide church. With 50 states and 90 countries represented in its undergraduate and graduate student body, Wheaton has the opportunity to lead in this area given its global footprint and worldwide legacy. The College’s approach to recruiting applicants, which emphasizes diversity that reflects God’s kingdom, is foundational to our recruitment efforts. Of course, kingdom diversity in our enrollment objectives also means holding to our central Christian foundation, even as we transcend norms and perceptions to equip our students.
The data is clear that we have a great opportunity to continue our mission by equipping students from diverse backgrounds and that we need to increase our application pool from regions outside of the Midwest. Enrolling an ethnically diverse class is not solely an admissions function, however. It takes a community committed to attracting, enrolling, and graduating first-generation and underrepresented populations—a community that understands the unique challenges these students face. In community, we seek to live out Revelation 7:9, which exemplifies the rich mosaic that is God’s kingdom, where tribes of many tongues and nations gather to worship the Lamb on his throne.
The Value of a Liberal Arts Education: A Good and Meaningful Life
A drop in birth rates and shifting demographics are not the only challenges we face. Today, many see a college education as a commodity and are unable to appreciate the value in a liberal arts education that develops men and women able to think critically, write well, and live lives of significance in their homes, communities, and workplaces. The perceived purpose of higher education has shifted from holistic formation to preparation for a specific professional or earnings outcome. Education has been reduced to a raw material to be used to meet an immediate need. The dominant cultural perspective seems to be that one should just get a degree and get a job, preferably one that pays well. It’s no wonder that students are lured by niche programs that promise immediate returns.
A Wheaton education is not designed to prepare students for a mere livelihood, but for a good and meaningful life. Wheaton students are prepared for free, faithful, and fruitful citizenship in the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, data from the College’s Center for Vocation and Career (CVC) confirms that a Christian liberal arts education at Wheaton, while forming students for a meaningful life, also prepares students for their career and vocational pursuits. They have highly marketable skills that employers look for, skills like analytical reading, critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving. Wheaton is a place of rigorous education, and graduates come out with strong academic credentials. They are people of character, who have a strong foundation in moral virtue and ethical reasoning. They are aware of their gifts and strengths, and they are broadly prepared to excel in a variety of callings over the course of their lives.
First Destination Survey
One recent graduate, Griffin Walker ’19, is a great example. She was a physics major who spent two summers working at large research universities doing research as part of a program with the National Science Foundation and she held leadership roles on campus; and yet she wasn’t sure where those experiences would take her after Wheaton. Because of her interactions with the CVC, Griffin was able to better understand and articulate the skills she had developed, what captivated her interest, and the values that were important to her as she thought about the future. Over the summer, she began a job as a Technical Services Problem Solver at Epic, a healthcare software company that selected Griffin for her strong communication and analytical skills.
Pursuing a liberal arts education and securing employment upon graduation are not mutually exclusive. In the area of career preparation, Wheaton College yields fantastic outcomes that surpass its peer institutions. The CVC recently reported that 99 percent of the class of 2018 was employed, interning, or pursuing further education within six months of graduation. Wheaton’s recent graduates are working in a variety of fields at leading companies and organizations worldwide. Many in the class of 2018 who are pursuing further education are at the country’s top graduate universities. In other words, Wheaton College does well when it comes to education leading to positive career and vocational outcomes. But we also believe that a Wheaton education is so much more. While our students land good jobs after graduation, they also become leaders in their fields and serve as whole people formed for all of life’s vocations. Wheaton College offers an education leading to the good life, not only a good job.
A final issue that Wheaton College must address concerns the changing number of self-identified Christians in our country.
In recent decades, a shift has occurred in the United States away from what some have termed “cultural Christianity” toward a more secular worldview. Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership Dr. Ed Stetzer outlines this cultural shift in his recent book Christians in the Age of Outrage. If one divided up the United States population into four religious categories, Stetzer suggests, you might have something like this: 25 percent non-Christian, 25 percent cultural Christians, 25 percent congregational Christians, and 25 percent convictional Christians. “Non-Christian” are people who hold to a different religion or no religion; “cultural Christians” identify as Christian primarily because they aren’t clearly something else, and because they were born into a historically Christian family or country; “congregational Christians” are connected to a local church and probably attend on holidays; “convictional Christians” are decidedly and devotionally Christian, attend church regularly, and strive to live lives aligned with Christian values.
Stetzer’s research reveals that the latter three categories—cultural, congregational, and convictional Christians—were the mainstream of the past. It used to be that people in America were “vaguely Christian, but for years, those with loosely held religious beliefs have been dropping them.”
As increasing numbers of Americans prefer to identify as non-Christian and have shifted toward a more secular worldview, self-professed committed Christians find themselves in the cultural minority. While the minority, this group of convictional Christians is showing stability, so there’s no fear in this population dwindling completely.
This shift away from cultural Christianity was recently illustrated for me when I heard about one high school student who, when he learned about a Christian liberal arts college, said that “Christian liberal arts is the same as hocus-pocus liberal arts. It doesn’t exist.” And again when I heard of another high school student who, on a field trip during which he visited a church building, commented that it was the first time he had set foot in a church building.
I also find that some devoted Christians don’t recognize the value of a place like Wheaton. For example, parents may think that since their child went to a Christian high school, they can face the realities of a public or non-sectarian university. Christian higher education is not about living safely in a Christian bubble. The real bubble is on a secular campus where matters of eternity are not considered relevant. Learning to think, live, and relate within a kingdom mindset is about developing one’s heart, mind, and talent for vocation and service in the world.
In the past, larger numbers of Americans who self-identified as Christian may have had an affinity for a Christian liberal arts education; in the future, Wheaton College will be the place for truly committed Christians. Wheaton College is special: it is the school for committed Christians seeking a formative and rigorous liberal arts education.
Our Strategic Approach
Wheaton has scoped out the landscape—observing the cliff ahead—and is preparing for the future with a new Division of Enrollment Management, launched in the fall of 2017. Composed of the offices of Undergraduate Admissions, Graduate Admissions, and Student Financial Services, this new division develops strategic approaches to face the challenges of the future. As Wheaton’s inaugural Chief Enrollment Management Officer, it is my privilege to join this vibrant community of faculty, staff, and students dedicated to kingdom work.
With the establishment of the enrollment division, Wheaton has ramped up its efforts to work across the institution by partnering with faculty and departments to more effectively convey the unique quality of a Wheaton education to students of “Generation Z.” While there is much data on how generations differ one from another, I hold firmly to the belief that most 17- and 18-year-olds considering college want to live a life of significance—to make a difference in this world—knowing that their life means something. Young Christians want to know what it means to follow Jesus, inside and outside of a church building.
In 2018-19, our first year under this enrollment model, we have restructured the undergraduate admissions office to strengthen our approach to recruitment. We have also created new positions to leverage areas of strength and create new opportunities to reach students who may want to enroll at Wheaton.
Close to home, we have created the Alumni, Parent, and HoneyRock Liaison position. While working with our committed alumni and parent volunteers to assist in our outreach campaigns, this new position will also work with the more than 250 high school HoneyRock campers and their families to create seamless opportunities for applying and enrolling at Wheaton.
At the same time, we are also redoubling our efforts to promote the Vanguard Gap Year program at Wheaton, emphasizing that a student who successfully completes the gap year can continue on to full-time enrollment at Wheaton.
Outside of Wheaton’s campus, we are launching a new office in East Asia to work with alumni, parents, schools, and churches to strengthen existing ties there as well as to develop new relationships. The Director of Admissions and Development – Asia Pacific will work closely with international admissions counselors from both undergraduate and graduate admissions offices while also strengthening relationships with alumni and friends who are investing in Wheaton College from across the globe.
Meeting the Challenge
Higher education in America may be heading for a cliff, but Wheaton College is strong and enduring, and well-equipped to meet the challenges ahead. We will continue to expand our demographics, proving that Wheaton’s enrollment trends can be agile and adapting. We will continue to demonstrate that Wheaton is an ideal place for Christians seeking a valuable Christian liberal arts education. And our mission to equip committed believers in the generations to come will continue as we strive to pursue faithfulness to our calling.
REFER A STUDENT TO WHEATON COLLEGE
For the fall 2019 semester, we received a five-year record-high number of applicants from across the United States and from over 30 nations around the world. From that application pool, we welcomed over 650 new students. We are thankful for God's faithfulness in bringing generations of fine young men and women to our campus, and we look forward to a future of growth for Christ and his kingdom. These numbers give us confidence in Wheaton’s future, but we humbly ask you to take an active role in the ongoing strength of our institution by providing us with student referrals, prayers, and financial support that help us to continue to identify resources for families to afford and attain a Wheaton diploma. The world needs colleges like Wheaton. But it is up to the Wheaton family near and far to ensure that promising students continue to be led here.
The undergraduate and graduate admissions offices along with the campus community are committed to doing their best to keep Wheaton’s applicant pool strong. Will you join us?