Issues of Access in Christian Higher Education

Access in Christian Higher EducationThe Role of a Christian College

What is the particular role of a Christian college in a broken world?  While many Christian institutions exist to serve the poor, the Christian college is not designed to be solely active in philanthropy. So what, then does it mean for an institution to have the title of Christian? Holmes (1975) claims that a Christian college  must be more than “a good education plus biblical studies in an atmosphere of piety”  (p. 5). Integration of faith and learning must be a core goal of Christian higher education.  One of the particulars of Christianity is the identity of its members as ministers of reconciliation.  Namely, as people made in the image of a God who offers more than just a new religious experience, but a new coming Kingdom, Christians are blessed with the opportunity to be co-laborers with God to work for the Kingdom in the current age (Walsh & Middleton, 1994).  The gap between the current and coming ages becomes prominent particularly in the realm of higher education when we see what access to Christian college is like. The question for this paper then, is not, “Should everyone go to college?” but, “Ought the Christian colleges be concerned that access to their institutions is limited by educational context, socio-economic background, and ethnicity?”   To guide this conversation, this paper will be organized into the primary worldview questions: who are we?  where are we?  what is the problem?  what is the solution?  Addressing these four questions will help to show what a Christian college might look like in the context of access.

Who Are We?

First, in the context of access, what is the identity of a Christian college?  How should it do good in the world?  Should it boost the economy by creating laborers?  Should it give free passes to all students who ask?  To answer this we will start with Hutchins.  To be clear, Hutchins (1936) did not think that higher education should be about helping individuals in specialized vocational labor training or the colleges themselves engaging in philanthropy.  In arguing against schools as primarily responsible for creating productive laborers, he writes, “According to this conception a university must make itself felt in the community…a state university must help the farmers look after their cows.  An endowed university must help adults get better jobs” (p. 6).  While the goal of liberal arts institutions is not solely the transfer of job skills to improve social mobility, the Christian college as being first Christian does exist for the good of the world, namely not just creating skilled laborers, but thoughtful, compassionate citizens.  Hutchins would likely agree with this.  Quoting Plato he writes, “The same education and the same habits will be found to make a man a good statesman and king”  (p. 56).  Hutchins here is concerned with a strong citizenship and the universality of higher education.  While Higher Education might not be necessary for every individual to live a good life, it certainly ought to be concerned with thoughtful living for all.

College, in the mind of Hutchins, was about educating thoughtful, intellectual citizens, and citizenship assumes membership and responsibility for place and history. It is the responsibility of the college to aim to produce thoughtful citizens who are responsible for place; this should lead Christian college staff and faculty to be thoughtful about the world and its issues, as well as educating students to do the same.  Are Christian college staffs thinking about how their institutions produce citizens who promote human flourishing?  If human flourishing is the responsibility of a college, access for those who have historically not experienced the same benefits of others should remain an important issue.

The Christian college should seek to graduate thoughtful citizens, but in some ways the college itself should also be engaged in citizenship as a minister of reconciliation.  Walsh and Middleton (1984) claim that, “…we as the church are to manifest visibly the life and presence of our Lord, here and now”  (p. 84).  Certainly one could read “the life and presence of our Lord” in the context of education to mean that Christian education ought to be more thoughtful, educate us to be thoughtful practitioners of the spiritual disciplines, or educate morality or how to think about morality.  However, “Christian” contains more than that; our education must be for something more than just professional development, stimulation of the intellect, or even discovering our humanness through the arts.  “But what about our liberation mandate to free the captives?  But what about those who lack the strength to converse because they have no food in their stomachs?” (Wolterstorff et al, 2004, p. 22).  Higher education means teaching thoughtful citizens how to live in the world, and Christian higher education means that they, as institutions, anticipate God coming to right the wrongs of this world.  In addition, the college as a collective system, its norms, traditions, admissions, and student body makeup, all together are a communicative medium in addition to the in class and co-curricular mediums.  How can one design the medium of Christian colleges if they ought to educate for shalom?  What sort of a worldview on justice are they “incarnating” by showing or not showing a diverse range of education, socioeconomic, and minority populations (Walsh and Middleton, 1984, p. 17)?

Where are we?

In a publication from 2011, Goshen College came out with a review of the ethnicity demographics across members of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) compared with similar, under 4,000, non-State, non-minority serving institutions across the United States.  In 2009, CCCU schools were comprised of 19.9 percent students of color compared to similar institutions that had 23.2 percent students of color (Reyes & Case, 2011).  At first glance, this might not seem like too wide of a gap to cause concern.  In reality, three percent is a sizeable amount of students, revealing that Christian schools are lagging behind similar institutions in diversity of their student body.  In addition to this, the gap between Christian schools’ student bodies and the local demographic of the cities in which they are located is even wider.  The smallest gap between CCCU schools and the surrounding minority demographic is found in the Midwest region. There the surrounding area has ten percent more individuals of color than the Christian colleges.  The Southwest schools represent the largest gap, having 27 percent less individuals of color than the surrounding area (Reyes & Case, 2011).  One can see that the gap of access in Christian higher education falls, at least partially, along the lines of ethnicity.  It is difficult to identify all of reasons for this; it may be because of choice, denominational demographics, general church demographics, differences in the culture, or a long list of other possibilities.  The fact remains, however, that Christian colleges currently are not open to all regardless of background.

In addition to ethnic disparity, there are also gaps in socio-economic diversity in Christian higher education. The data for specifically Christian institutions is sparse; however, there is insightful data on higher education institutions in general, and that data would likely be worse for the usually more expensive Christian schools as families with less economic resources are generally less likely to go to more expensive schools.  In a somewhat dated longitudinal study from 1988, the Department of Education discovered that students from a “low income” bracket who scored in the highest quartile on their 8th grade math test only had a 29 percent chance of completing a bachelor’s degree compared to 74 percent of students in both “high income” bracket and with the highest quartile of test scores.  Even students who scored in the lowest quartile on their 8th grade math tests, but were in the highest income bracket had a 30 percent chance of completing a bachelor’s degree (Roy, 2012).  Students who perhaps are not as far along educationally have a better chance of going to college simply because their family makes more money.

While the question is absolutely not as simple as, “Should more individuals be able to go to Christian colleges?”, the Christian higher education professional should at least be mindful of this inequality in access.  One would be hard pressed to find someone in Christian higher education who thinks that individuals from lower socio-economic standings, ethnic minority groups, or worse educational contexts should not be able to go to college.  However, what is the level of responsibility and priority of Christian colleges and universities towards making their schools more accessible?  This then is where Christian colleges are: institutions that often desire accessible and diverse campuses, but are halted by financial difficulties and trying to survive in a world where a liberal education is becoming less appreciated.

What is Wrong with the World?

What is wrong with the world and, thus, access in Christian Higher Education?  The answer to this question is complex.  The obvious and most apparent wrong may be cost.  Many staff, faculty, and administrators in Christian higher education would say a less expensive college that could accept more students and leave students with less debt would be a good thing.  However, lowering costs is a tricky endeavor. Both Khan (2012) and Indiana Wesleyan president, Dr. David Wright (2013), attribute the high cost of education to personnel.  However, while Khan writes that the high cost of personnel is bad, Wright writes that it is good and necessary in order to provide a quality education.  There are a number of other reasons that college costs so much, lower government funding, less student aid available, and inflation are a few examples.  Lowering personnel costs, while one of the few things colleges can control, may take away from many Christian colleges’ commitment to a holistic learning model that integrates faith and learning (Wright, 2013).

It is more than just a question of whether or not students from disadvantaged backgrounds can get into college.  Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are also less prepared for college.  According to the ACT testing group, only 20 percent of college students from low-income families met three of the four ACT benchmarks, while 62 percent of students from high income families did (Students from Low-Income… 2014, July 17).  Similarly, students who have cultural backgrounds that differ from the majority of students at Christian colleges may have a difficult time fitting in and feeling welcome in these institutions (Forsyth & Furlong, 2003).  Looking at these reasons it is no wonder that students from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes have a higher rate of dropping out.  Christian colleges’ high cost and culture not only discourages disadvantaged students from applying, but can also be un-welcoming and poor educational experiences for students who might not be ready for what Christian colleges demand.

I do not believe that this is a result of cruel, uncaring Christian college staff and faculty members.  However I would suggest that these institutions may be guilty of cynicism. Garber (2014) wrestles with how faithful people of God are to interact with seemingly impossible culture change.  He defines lapses of love and responsibility as “cynicism” and “stoicism.”  It seems that more immediate and daunting problems have blocked the path to increase access to Christian higher education; it is difficult to worry about economic reconciliation and greater access when your doors are threatening to close.  In response to a vision that insists on responsibility for the way the world ought to turn out, Garber mimics the cynics, “A nice idea, but please—we have to live in the world that is really there” (p. 181).  Garber paints a picture of individuals confronted by the harsh realities of life where too often the harsh realities win.  Again, whether through low enrollment, dropping federal and donated aid, or success of even the “average” student, cynicism often wins the day, and seemingly unrealistic goals are disregarded as unreachable.  In other words, improving access in higher education is a nice idea, but, please, let’s focus on something that can actually be fixed.  Christian higher education staffs do have to live in the real world; however, there is also a different competing world, or Kingdom, if you prefer.  The nature of this Kingdom should give Christian staff and faculty hope that change is certainly possible.

What is the Solution?

How does one go about fixing this problem of broken access in Christian Higher education?  This again is a complex question.  Garber’s (2014) hope in hopeless situations comes, in part, from the incarnational God.  In response to the cynics he says:

There is much to be cynical about—and it is a good answer if there has not been an incarnation.  But if that has happened, if the word did become flesh, and if there are men and women who in and through their own vocations imitate the vocation of God, then sometimes and in some places the world becomes something more like the way it ought to be. (p. 185)

The good news is that not only does the term Christian assume some sort of responsibility as ministers of reconciliation, but also that we have an incarnational God who goes before us.  He not only chooses to inextricably tie himself to human suffering and complexity in the incarnation, but also, through the resurrection, has forever defeated the gap between every ought and is.  The solution for the Christian higher education staff member then is first hope.  Secondly, to finish out Garber’s thoughts, Christian higher education administers ought to work “proximately” in the area of access in Christian higher education.  Garber empathizes with this deep desire to see justice, and constantly hitting the wall of reality.  He describes people who have felt this way as individuals who, “longed to do what is right, knowing that all that is right will not be and cannot be done…..So if we are going to be honest, we have to live with what is proximate.”  (Garber, 2014, p. 201)  To work for what is proximate, that which is nearby, that which one can grasp, seems about as good a starting place as any other.  This will look different for every position within Christian institutions.  For a residence director, is might look like being extra intentional with those midterm grade reports and carefully seeking to understand what factors might affect the student’s grades.  For faculty, it might mean extra hours for the student who is missing the right resources to succeed.  For people with means, it could mean extra scholarships for prospective students in lower-income brackets.

While Hutchins (1936) might not completely agree with this view on the exact role of higher education in social change, both he and Khan (2012) shed light on what a solution for this problem might be.  Hutchins (1936) would be against a college founded in  utilitarianism with the sole purpose of putting better workers into the community (p. 6).  While equipping disadvantaged students with job skills to create impactful workers is admirable, the Christian liberal arts education offers more, a deep learning that is steeped in the gospel.  This is what Christian colleges should focus on to improve access.  To solve economic and ethnic inequality the world needs creative thinkers who, more often than not by a product of their education, care deeply and think well about the problems that the world presents.  This is precisely why the world needs thinkers from disadvantaged backgrounds, they are already well prepared to engage these problems.  Hutchins (1936) has this to say on the problems of teaching just practical job skills:

The professions and the public demand people trained according to their idea of what that training should be.  How can their ideas be changed?  Only by an education which they can get only in a university.  Can a university train men for a profession in ways which the profession does not approve?  (p. 55)

Hutchins argues that in order to advance the professions, universities should exist for the purpose of teaching students the basic principles and intellectual means of improving the professions.  This is precisely why the solution for access in Christian colleges is not to leave it up to trade schools or even less expensive state schools, while both of those options help and are good for those who desire them.  If Hutchins is right about how higher education preserves democracy by producing students who can think independently and creatively, then the solution for Christian schools does in fact involve a return to how our students are thinking, especially in the areas of brokenness in this world.

Khan (2012) , on the other hand, provides some insight on a solution for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are already in Christian higher education.  Khan (2012) writes about gaps in education and how to fix them.  It is inevitable that every student will have gaps, and his answer is to revisit a topic until a student has mastery (p. 54).  Students of disadvantaged educational, socioeconomic, and minority backgrounds certainly may need help with gaps in their learning in topical areas such as Khan is suggesting.  Findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation would lead one to believe that there might be other gaps worth addressing as well.  The foundation lists several including, “A lack of familiarity with higher education…a lack of funds…a fear of debt…feelings of cultural isolation.” (Forsyth & Furlong, 2003). How can Christian higher education staff be a bridge and resource for these students?  Adding another item to the plate of an already busy and increasingly heavy college to-do list seems daunting, but staff should think about what is proximate.  What is within reach, what is possible?

Closing Remarks

Colleges are not primarily philanthropic institutions.  However Christian colleges can not fully abandon the responsibility of their Christian calling to be ministers of reconciliation.  Part of the nature of Christian higher education is that it is not inclusive.  While there is a wide spectrum of practice, simply having the name “Christian” denotes that a particular institution has a certain outlook on life, regardless of who they let enter their doors.  In addition to this, high cost also limits students who have access to Christian institutions.  The complexity of Christian institutions is that there is only so much that professionals can do.  Perhaps it does not have to be this way, but high costs seem to be unavoidable in the running of Christian colleges today.  Christian colleges are still left with hope, however.  The God of Justice has certainly not abandoned them, but rather has gone before them in victory.  As Christian higher education professionals work to see greater access and improving resources for those already within their doors, it cannot be missed that good things are certainly coming and that change is possible.


(2014, July 17). Students from low-income families have high college aspirations, report finds. Retrieved from

Forsyth, A., & Furlong, A. (2003, May 16). Socio-economic disadvantage and experience in higher education. Retrieved from

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Garber, S. (2014). Visions of vocation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Khan, S. (2012) The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Print.

Reyes, R., and Kimberly C. (2011, 28 Jan.) National Profile on Ethnic/Racial Diversity of Enrollment, Graduation Rates, Faculty, and Administrators Among the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Rep. Goshen College, Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Roy, J. (2012, 12 Oct.) “Low Income Hinders College Attendance for Even the Highest Achieving Students.” Economic Policy Institute. N.p., Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

Walsh, B. J., and J. R. Middleton. (1984) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, Print.

Wolterstorff, N., C. W. Joldersma, and G. G. Stronks. (2004. October 26) “Teaching For Shalom: On the Goal of Christian Collegiate Education.”Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., Print.

Wright, D., Dr. (2013, 5 Sept.) “Why Does College Cost So Much?” IWU President. Indiana Wesleyan University, Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

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