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Getting schooled: Re-evaluating higher education

In recent weeks, you may have noticed a migration of young, bleary-eyed Americans in cars stuffed with furniture, bedding and textbooks crossing the border back into the States for summer break.
The number of U.S. students getting a degree from a Canadian institution increased almost 50 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to data from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).
There are currently more than 10,000 Americans earning graduate or undergraduate degrees in Canada, still a paltry amount compared to the number of international students from, say, China, but enough to keep Canada’s school presidents strategizing for more.
Most experts rack up the Uncle Sam influx to smart economic decisions. Although particulars vary depending on location and institution, the Canadian higher education system is cheaper than the American and boasts similar alumni employment statistics; look quickly, for example, at the two countries’ top schools: McGill and Harvard. McGill, for international students, costs around $15,000. And if you stayed stateside and attended Harvard? Well, without a scholarship, you’d be shelling out more than twice that, at around $38,000.
Four out of 10 students in Canada graduate debt-free, also according to the AUCC. In the States, it’s six out of 10.
But there might be a deeper reason for the jump in U.S. international students. Lately, U.S. higher education has been in some deep water. Although Canada has had its share of dire predictions about post-secondary education, they are less severe and less frequent.
As a sector, American higher education had experienced easy growth in the 20 years leading up to the recession, but ever since, it’s been struggling.
According to assessments and surveys from Moody’s Investors Service and Inside Higher Ed, among others, there seem to be three main components to the U.S.’s struggle:
First, the 2008 recession triggered a reexamination of tuition’s sticker price. Parents sending their kids to college in the middle of rough financial situations didn’t like what they saw. College is expensive – no surprise there. From 1978 to 2011, tuition for all universities increased at an annual rate of 7.45 percent. In comparison, family income only increased at a rate of 3.8 percent. Currently student debt fills the ever-widening gap between average tuition and average family income; that system, however, is highly unsustainable.

Recession remains
According to the latest survey of college presidents across the country completed by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup U.S., only half of higher education’s chief financial officers think that their school’s financial plan is sustainable 10 years from now. They are most worried about privately-owned institutions, which include all Christian colleges and universities. And just for the record, only five percent strongly agreed that the 2008 recession was effectively “over” at their institution.
Third, four year residential schools are finding themselves constantly threatened by technological substitutes to their offered degrees. Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are burgeoning; according to a survey collaborated by Babson and the College Board, the number of students in higher education taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 6.7 million, or 32 percent. Students see MOOCs, with their easily-transferrable credits, as high-value currency in their bid for an education. In the Canadian system, conversely, with its relatively fewer numbers of schools, transferring credits isn’t as valuable.
What’s the result of these three threats to the current higher education system in the U.S.? Enrollment is tanking. Even top schools are facing lower enrollment, and private schools are taking the worst hit. According to the Wall Street Journal, freshman enrollment at more than a quarter of U.S. privately-owned four-year schools declined 10 percent or more from 2010-2012.
For the institutions affected, which are often the private four year schools, the answer to the higher education struggle is complex. Many seem to be taking four basic strategies.

Fiscal fine-tuning
First, they’re making the classroom cheaper by hiring more adjuncts and relying heavily on MOOCs. A 2013 study, “The Future of Education,” showed 43 percent of students say that “online education will provide them with courses of the same or higher quality than traditional colleges.” The question, of course, is whether their future employers agree. Online credits are a financial risk for colleges: If they become the accreditation of the future, well and good. If they’re proven undesirable on a resume, colleges may need to backtrack to rehire actual faculty and regain credibility.
Second, they’re making the college experience more attractive. Colleges often focus on variety rather than quality with their proffered majors, offering a buffet of classes that cater to a notoriously indecisive generation. Enhancing and managing the college experience has often led to inefficiency: according to 2010 research done by Goldwater Institute, higher education became less and less efficient as its industry grew. In the enrollment boom from 1993 to 2007, the number of faculty per student only grew by 18 percent, whereas administrative positions grew by 39 percent.
Third, they’re freezing tuition. Colleges across the country are noticing the dip in market demand of their product – a diploma – and they’re freezing the cost. They’re also tending to freeze salaries for their professors.
Fourth, they’re hoarding endowments. According a paper published last month in The American Economic Review, colleges tend to hang onto their money when rough times roll around. They cut support staff first (no surprise there) but then ditch tenure-track professors through attrition, neglecting new hires or even lay-offs.
These four strategies are being used by many Christian schools in the U.S. that are part of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). The 38-year-old CCCU is comprised of 120 members in North America and exists to provide programs and services to aid Christian colleges and universities.
However, in a time when these private Christian colleges and universities are mostly likely to need aid, the CCCU is itself wading in troubled waters.
In October, the CCCU fired its president, Edward O. Blews Jr., after only 10 months on the job. According to a lengthy investigation by World magazine, Blews took a hacksaw to the organization and implemented a self-focused work environment that employees found oppressive. Blews, however, apparently disagrees: last month, Blews decided to sue the CCCU. The leadership further down the ranks has been wobbling as well.
The CCCU also faces external pressure from the federal government on controversial policies because of its Christian identity.

Christian education in Canada
The CCCU’s Canadian counterpart, the Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC), seems relatively more stable. Only nine years old, CHEC is much smaller than the CCCU, comprised of but 33 members. It, however, faces its own challenges: one great obstacle is the negative perception of Christian higher education in Canada, not just because it’s “religious” but also because it’s private. As explained on its website, CHEC perceives a lack of credibility among prospective students in the thought that private higher education, whether Christian or not, could provide as quality an education as a public university.  
Little research is done on Canada’s private colleges and universities, but one thing is certain: although the predictions are nowhere as dire as south of the border, Canada’s public higher education is not quite high and dry.
According to the College Centre of Board Excellence survey, Canadian colleges and universities alike perceive funding uncertainty as the greatest risk – outstripping other risks by 10 percent. As the government responds to the recession by cutting programs, college funding is directly in the path of the blade.
Perhaps this means an prime opportunity for CHEC members. If every risk is a challenge in disguise, then perhaps this post-higher-education-golden-age, this era of funding cuts, is the best thing that ever happened to Christian colleges and universities on both sides of the border. Maybe it’s an opportunity to legitimize strong programs and cut weak ones. Maybe it’s a chance to reevaluate what makes Christian education so unique.
As the horde of American students moving to Canada indicates, higher education may look very different in 20 years.
And maybe that’s exactly what we want.

  • Judith Campbell is a recent graduate of Geneva College in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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