So began a Wall Street Journal article on the threat to America's colleges, especially those smaller, poorer, and religious schools who are finding competition from online degree programs a hefty challenge. Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School thinks that half of America’s colleges will close due to the same threat Guelzo, author of the WSJ article, thinks America’s 1,800 private colleges are especially vulnerable. In the case of Selma, the student body dropped by 43%, the school was deep in debt, and it became no longer financial viable. In other words, it was bankrupt. It may be the tip of a growing trend.
Of course, there are many threats -- online degree programs, cheap state schools, state programs to reduce tuition cost or even make it free, and the lack of big endowments. But Guelzo said the threat may be much simpler -- demographics. The sagging birth rates reduce potential applicants (he says 450,000 during the 2020s) mean that competition for the remaining pool of candidates will be fierce and the big schools are in a much better position to weather the shrinking population and have a diverse income stream to support their efforts. On the other hand, private colleges must raise money through tuition increases that will effectively price them out of the market. Tax dollars that support public universities mean that the student population does not have to bear the entire cost as they do in private schools. Plus the drumbeat of free college for all indicates the threat is not only real but is moving quickly to hamstring the recruitment at the vast majority of private colleges.
So the threat that forced the closure of Concordia College, Selma, was not unique to that school and is a very real threat to most of our Missouri Synod Concordias. While some (Mequon) have done an effective job of adding programs and recruiting students, it also has (apart from the Ann Arbor campus) a very small population of those training for church work vocations. So it is succeeding by inventing a purpose different from what it was created by the church to do. Unfortunately, the other Concordias are not as well positioned, have smaller student bodies, and are much more vulnerable to the threats faced by all private and especially religious colleges and universities.
In the LCMS there is a very strong desire to see our Concordias prosper and to find a way to reinvigorate their role as trainers for the church workers of our future. That said, it is by all accounts an uphill battle. Some will inevitably have to close and others will perhaps find ways to build programs and recruit students to a more diverse campus and all of them will have to figure out what to do to compete with other online degree programs. The Synod has already seen this threat and is working on it but it may not be possible to maneuver around the obstacles in their path and leave these decisions to a triennial convention cycle. I wish I had a crystal ball to see into the future but all I have is a basic understanding of the potholes facing those Concordias and the church body that has always seen these institutions are auxiliaries to the primary mission of the LCMS. In any event, it will not be a simple matter for our leaders to work through and it will require us to make some hard decisions -- sooner rather than later.
As a product of the LCMS system of junior colleges, a senior college, and seminaries, I am convinced of the value. But I fear it is a jewel too pricey for us to keep in anything at all resembling what I knew or even what we see in place right now. This is a time of prayer and angst and yet we meet it with the confidence that God will work among us to find the right way and to make the hard decisions. The last thing we need is politicking that polarizes the state of the church that must make such decisions.