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Mennonite institutions respond to turbulence in higher education

12.21. 2017 Written By: Mennonite Church USA college and university presidents

This letter was written by the presidents of the Mennonite Church USA colleges and universities (pictured above in alphabetical order by last name), James M. Harder (Bluffton University), Joseph Manickam (Hesston College), Susan Schultz Huxman (Eastern Mennonite University), John Sheriff (Bethel College) and Rebecca Stoltzfus (Goshen College).

As presidents of Mennonite Church USA’s colleges and universities, we are acutely aware that small private liberal arts colleges — especially religiously-affiliated ones like ours — are struggling against enrollment trends favoring large public institutions, and that we exist in a national system widely believed to be in crisis.

Key criticisms include soaring costs, unequal access by income, unequal inclusion and completion by race, and lack of responsiveness to the job market. These concerns have led to a general erosion of public trust in colleges and universities, and a recently approved tax bill that decreased support to low-income students and decreased the tax advantages of philanthropy, upon which we depend. Our purpose in writing together is to place the work of Mennonite colleges in this context, and to illustrate how we are working creatively and collectively to survive and thrive.

Soaring costs

Increasing sticker prices are real, but so is increasing financial aid. Our Mennonite institutions work to make college affordable by offering competitive need-based and merit-based financial aid. We provide aid to practically all of our traditional undergraduate students, with the average financial aid packages of $25,928 per student. We also control tuition costs. In the ten-year period from 2007-08 to 2017-18, the average tuition of four-year private, non-profit colleges and universities increased by 2.4 percent per year. However, four-year public institutions saw an increase of 3.2 percent for the same time period. And, for example, Goshen College in Indiana produces graduates with less debt than graduates from Indiana public institutions.

Unequal access

Which leads us to the second criticism: unequal access by income. We share this concern. We exist in a world in which social disparities by income, education and race are deeply structured into our society and economy. By giving financial aid packages to nearly all of our students, much of it need-based, we strive to level the playing field and increase access for students from low-income families.

The result is that Mennonite colleges and universities enroll students from lower income families at rates that are relatively high, and much higher than very wealthy elite schools with deep pools of financial aid dollars. The nine Ivy League Universities, for example, enroll 7-13 percent of their students from families in the lower 40 percent of the U.S. income distribution. By comparison, Mennonite colleges enroll 15-19 percent of our students from this income range. That percentage could be even higher with greater financial support from our donors. Could we get to a place where all Mennonite colleges and universities commit to meeting 100 percent of students’ financial need? If we are serious about social justice as an essential part of our educational mission, we need to strive in that direction.

We are also working hard at making graduation rates equitable by race and ethnicity. We celebrate the fact that racial diversity has rapidly expanded at all the Mennonite institutions. At Eastern Mennonite University, 38 percent of undergraduate students are non-white. Goshen College has strategically invested in attracting, enrolling and retaining Latino students, who now comprise 23 percent of the student body (compared to 51 percent white U.S. citizens), and graduate at rates 12 percent higher than the national average. We welcome international students; Hesston College, for example, currently enrolls students from 17 countries. Yet we are far from satisfied and need to work even more effectively to increase access, full participation and timely graduation of students of all races and backgrounds.

Career readiness

The quality of U.S. liberal arts education is also being assailed, especially in terms of career readiness. In this regard, Mennonite higher education achieves outstanding outcomes. A national Gallup-Purdue study of college graduates was designed to find out what characteristics of the college experience were associated with well-being and thriving in adulthood, including in careers. They discovered that the type of college the graduates attended—public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective—made no meaningful difference to their later well being. What mattered was the relationships and experiences the graduates had had in college. They concluded: “Feeling supported and having deep learning experiences means everything when it comes to long-term outcomes for college graduates.” This is what our Mennonite institutions are known for, and we do this work with astonishing cost-efficiency relative to our wealthier peers. Our graduates are very successful entering the job market, with overall rates of employment at 97 percent within one year of graduation.

Responding with innovation

These are turbulent times. Business guru Peter Drucker said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” We feel the gravitational pull of our traditions, and we also assure you, every leader in our Mennonite colleges is actively searching for new strategies that will allow us to thrive and continue to serve the church and the world through education in the Anabaptist tradition.

In addition to innovation, we need private donations and supportive governmental policies at both the state and federal levels. And, now more than ever, we need the support of the Mennonite church. This is especially true given the federal government’s recent tax bill with provisions that will make our work even harder.

In the midst of turbulence, we remain confident and committed to strengthening our students, communities, denomination and society through the education we provide. To that end, we invite you to share your constructive thoughts and ideas.

Read more reflections on the status and impact of Mennonite education in the January issue of The Mennonite magazine. 

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