Education’s shifting context
Mennonite colleges and universities face an array of 21st-century challengesBy D. Merrill Ewert
The economic, social and political forces buffeting higher education also pummel Mennonite colleges and universities. Our schools — created to provide Mennonites greater access to college, develop church leaders, nurture Anabaptist values and prepare graduates for service in the kingdom — face many challenges.
Broken financial model
Escalating costs have put college outside the reach of many families. Though improving in some areas, unemployment in cities like Fresno, Calif., continues in the double digits. Tuition is rising faster than the cost of living, the nation’s gross domestic product or people’s salaries. Many parents cannot send their children to private colleges because they lost their jobs, took salary cuts or don’t qualify for loans due to lost home equity. Concurrently, several states have reduced (or eliminated) grants for students with limited means, and some congregations have cut back financial support to their colleges.
Many institutions struggle with new government mandates, rising health-care costs and deferred maintenance on aging facilities. This squeeze is not short-term; it’s here to stay. The economic model that built the best higher education system in the world is broken.
Rise of the for-profits
Public and independent (non-profit, private) colleges and universities are being challenged by for-profit institutions that have made their programs more accessible through the effective use of technology and by becoming masters of marketing. It is common for these institutions to receive 80 to 85 percent of their income from Pell Grants, work study and guaranteed loans. Although students at for-profit institutions represent only 9 to 10 percent of the U.S. college population, they receive 25 percent of federal financial aid.
Many for-profits spend more on marketing than they do on instruction. They also don’t offer services and programs that make our Mennonite institutions special: student life, chapel, Bible studies, mentorship, music ensembles, intramurals and athletics.
In one year, the University of Phoenix enrolled more students than all of the Big Ten and the Southeast Conference schools combined. A failing Catholic school with an enrollment below 300 was purchased and turned into a for-profit institution that today enrolls nearly 80,000 students, 99 percent of them online. Supporters say the for-profits have transformed higher education into an efficient business. They’ve done so by relying on part-time professors, increasing class size and delivering online courses. Some for-profits have also been fined for deceptive marketing, lying about accreditation, misrepresenting graduation rates and paying commissions to admissions officers in violation of federal law. Although some enrollments fell after recent congressional hearings, the for-profits are here to stay.
New faculty majority
Called adjuncts or contingent faculty, part-time instructors have replaced tenure-track professors as the majority in higher education. Undergraduate enrollments increased by 40 percent (5.3 million students) between 1995 and 2009. While faculty increased by 50 percent during that period, 90 percent of those were hired off the tenure track. Seventy to 75 percent of all university professors today are adjuncts.
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