The economic downturn has had a substantial impact on colleges and universities.
The first shoe dropped when endowments everywhere took big hits from a rapidly falling market. When endowments go underwater, they produce no income and generally can't be touched.
The other shoe will drop when we see how private colleges and universities do in terms of their student numbers for the fall. My casual conversations with peers indicates that the private schools are running behind in terms of student deposits. The buyers are not feeling flush.
The public universities, on the other hand, have their own problems. The ones that have endowments are down. They also rely on tax subsidies in a time when tax revenues are diminished. The trend of the last several years has been for states to offer less and less financial support. In-state tuition has risen substantially. Where they do not suffer is in terms of student numbers. They will be overwhelmed by bargain seekers in tough economic times. The question is whether they will have state funds to backfill the subsidized education they offer and how many they can admit. As it stands now, their facilities are often severely strained, teaching assistants do an awful lot of the instruction, and there are a large number of cattle call style courses.
What I'm suggesting is that the era of almost unbroken tuition increases at will is over. Economic reality is descending harshly upon colleges and universities. I suspect we will see a continuation in the move away from tenure. Colleges that have tenure covertly move away from it by hiring more and more non-tenured track instructors. I also think we will see a long term movement away from the emphasis on research in areas where grant dollars do not accompany the work. The result will be that many institutions will move away from light teaching loads (maybe two courses a semester) back toward heavier loads (four courses per semester). The reason I suggest this will happen in the long term is because faculty contracts are not alterable until either they conclude or a university declares financial exigency.
At the same time, formal higher education is under competitive pressure from alternative sources. The number of online options continues to increase. Students in many fields may find themselves pursuing Microsoft certification (or the equivalent) in a corporate setting rather than at a university. To make matters worse, the evisceration of the classic liberal arts core curriculum has left many scratching their heads at why they have to spend two years taking a cafeteria style core that imparts no particular foundation of knowledge. Unless it can answer these challenges, higher education may be in store for a major reversal of fortune.
For the consumers (the students and parents) this may represent a positive development in the sense that colleges will focus on recognizing financial efficiencies rather than counting on substantial tuition increases. It may also mean tougher competition for the schools seeking a smaller pie of students.
So, how will schools compete? I can take a shot at answering for the Christian institutions. For the most part, these schools are on the lower end of the private tuition scale because they are already instructionally efficient. The vast majority of faculty at Christian universities teach four courses each semester. The advantage these schools have to offer, if they will take it, is in the area of intellectual and moral formation.
From my point of view, that means the Christian schools should place a heavy emphasis on a rigorous and classical liberal arts core curriculum. This curriculum should not have a lot of choice in it. Students should journey together under expert guidance through the great conversations of the ages. The teachers should look for opportunities to connect their teaching to their understanding of the Christian faith. Having just covered Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Machiavelli in an intro to political science class, I found highlighting the relevance of the Christian confession very simple in the case of each author.
The emphasis on formation should continue through the courses offered in the major. Each professor should take a personal interest in students and hope to build them up in their faith, their integrity, and their desire for excellence. For example, no student of a Christian business or MBA program should entertain any illusions about the wisdom of separating business from moral and spiritual values.
As an undergraduate at Florida State, I found all too little mentorship, but one economics professor (not necessarily a Christian) cared about shaping me as a person. I have thought about him regularly since that time almost twenty years ago. As I teach at Houston Baptist University, I try to have that effect on my students.
Christian philanthropists absolutely should be putting their dollars into these projects. If a Christian university functions in the way I've suggested, I suspect there are few cultural initiatives that can hope to have the same impact. I remember speaking to a very wise Christian university president recently about exactly these things. He feared the economic downturn would cause some schools to close. That may happen, but I hope the downturn will generate the creative tension needed to cause our institutions to focus on first things and how to pass them on. And may the financial support follow.