Thursday, March 26, 2020
Big Challenges. . .
A million years ago we came up with the Concordia preparatory system to train church workers and, if there were lay folks who wanted a theological education, they could attend as well. We set up an elaborate system of boarding high schools, two year prep schools, and a two year finishing school just to produce pastors for the church (and some Lutheran teachers to boot). Things started going sour when the high schools began to close. People were not so sure they wanted to box up their young'uns and send them off at such a tender age. All of this corresponded in time, at least, to the beginnings of Missouri's theological wars. Then a Senior College was closed and a Seminary moved to its campus and nearly all the two year schools became four year colleges. Where the pre-sems and the church work students were once the center and core of the school's mission and purpose for existence, now the schools were competing for every 18 year old out there and trying to offer every program that would appeal to those students and make them enough money to stay open. Except for Seward and Ann Arbor, church work students became an asterisk instead of the beating heart of the school. Then the Seminaries welcomed men without languages and the shine began to rub off of the Concordias. They were no longer essential to the Synod's need to pump out pastors. About the same time the pipeline of 18 year olds began to decline. Schools began expanding their core mission to find someway to pay the bills. River Forest found a mission in on site master's programs for public school teachers. Then the online revolution changed everything. Suddenly a Portland was in cahoots with a for profit firm to become an online degree mill. It worked for a while but the numbers of undergrads on campus did not grow. They ran afoul of the government and costs went up and profits declined. They found themselves where so many small religious and/or private colleges find themselves -- depending upon tuition for cash to operate and a shrinking pool of 18 year olds. In the end they could not find a magic way around the wall. They were in need of cash and competing against cheaper state schools and better endowed private schools. Portland died because they could not sustain the business model and they had no certain path to fix what was wrong with their model.
I have no insider knowledge but I have read most of what has been published on the closing. The Synod had no pool of money from which to bandaid the school through and the school faced the loss of its line of credit and its notes became due. The regents had no choice. It is sad and tragic but it was not a surprise and is not surprising to those who chronicle the state of private and religious colleges in America today. Portland was not the first and it will not be the last. The shake up going on is still rattling through our Concordia University System. In the end you have to wonder how we can operate a church system of schools in which 1/7 or less of its students are Lutheran and the numbers of church work students is less than 5% of the total enrollment. The schools who survive will have to find a way to operate in this environment. Maybe Mequon is an example of a broad and diverse university but I am not sure we can make a case for needing even Mequon being a school of the LCMS. Gustavus Adolphus in tiny St. Peter, MN, probably has the highest Lutheran student population (40% or more, I am told) but it is a legacy school building upon generations who were and will be Gustavus grads. The ELCA schools are less tied to the national church but they too have been closing and some of those will not survive the purge either.
You will not be hearing the last of the fight our schools are in just to survive. We are not alone and we are not immune to the pressures on these small schools. They do not have enough endowment to be secure, depend too much upon tuition to operate in the black so little ups and downs in enrollment can have big effects upon their fiscal health, and there are cheaper and, in some cases, better options among the state sponsored schools (some of whom offer instate students free tuition). My alma maters are gone -- St. John's College more than 30 years ago and Concordia Senior College more than 40 years ago. We thought things would settle out but they have not. The ride will be rocky, my friends, and we will have to make some hard decisions.