According to ABHE’s 2015 statistical report, out of roughly 140 universities and colleges who have any official reported status with ABHE, there are only 5 non-denominational Bible colleges with attendance over 320 students (including undergraduate and graduate studies): Columbia Bible College (407), College of Biblical Studies (423), Grace Bible College (883), Lancaster Bible College (1892), and Moody Bible Institute (3907).
According to ABHE’s 2011 statistical report, out of roughly 135 universities and colleges who have any official reported status with ABHE, there were 8 non-denominational Bible colleges with attendance over 320 students: Grace Bible College (324), Master’s College and Seminary (340), God’s Bible School and College (353), Columbia Bible College (493), College of Biblical Studies (493), Washington Bible College and Capital Bible Seminary (501), Lancaster Bible College (1189), and Moody Bible Institute (3501).
Of those 8, 3 saw significant growth since the 2011 report, 1 closed (Washington Bible College and Capital Seminary), and 4 have seen significant enrollment decreases since the 2011 report (Master’s College and Seminary from 340 to 235, God’s Bible School and College from 353 to 278, Columbia Bible College from 493 to 407, and College of Biblical Studies decreased from 493 to 423).
Of the 3 that grew their enrollment, Grace Bible College saw a remarkable increase from 324 to 883, in part through academic program expansion beyond traditional ministry programs, including teacher education, business, exercise science, history human services, and criminal justice. Lancaster Bible College saw growth from 1189 students to 1892, with program expansion and some influx of students from the folding of Washington Bible College and the merger with Capital Bible Seminary in 2013. Moody Bible Institute grew from 3501 to 3907, with steady growth in multiple categories, along with successfully leveraging a merger with Michigan Theological Seminary (now Moody Theological Seminary, Michigan) in 2010.
SPECIFIC MARKET PRESSURES FACING BIBLE COLLEGES
In short, only the very strongest in this sector have seen significant growth, and those have been driven largely by deliberate expansions well beyond the scope of the traditional Bible college, or by market opportunities of merger and acquisition. The non-denominational Bible college sector is disappearing, as leading schools in the sector are moving beyond traditional models, and those that insist on staying within the bubble are seeing either dramatic and continual decreases in enrollment or even closure. Moody’s Investor Services predicts even tougher times ahead, suggesting that the number of college closures will triple in 2017. Their report adds some important narrative: “Enrollment declines and lost market share for smaller colleges continue to spur closures and mergers, as students increasingly opt for larger colleges with greater academic resources.”
The problem largely manifests in schools’ inability to reinvest in infrastructure for future growth: “…most small colleges will fail to achieve sustained revenue growth above 2% per year, which puts them at a disadvantage in a highly competitive higher education environment. Furthermore, small colleges will continue to lose market share to larger ones, hurting their ability to invest in academic programs, student life and facilities. Inefficient cost structures are also hampering the ability of small colleges to invest in their programs and facilities. By relying on falling tuition revenue to fund the majority of their rising fixed costs, small colleges without endowment or gift revenue will be increasingly challenged to properly fund ongoing operations.“
Moody’s assessment underscores 6 major concerns:
- Students choosing larger colleges for their greater resources,
- Lack of sustained revenue growth above 2%,
- Trend toward smaller colleges losing market share to larger ones,
- Failing to reinvest for future growth,
- Inefficient cost structures,
- Reliance on tuition revenue.
While these six concerns play a huge role directly in the overall decline in Bible-college health, there are two other factors that are equally prominent in creating an increasingly unwelcoming environment for higher Christian education: declining church attendance and funding, and disproportionate cost of college preparation versus expected wages for full-time ministry.
Declining Church Attendance and Funding Means Declining Full-Time Ministry Opportunities
Each year 4000 churches close, compared to 1000 new churches planted in the United States. In 1995, 20.5% of Americans attended church 2 or more times per month, compared to 19% in 1999 and 18% in 2002. If the trend continues, frequent attenders will decrease to 15% in 2025 and 12% in 2050. The typical Protestant church in 2003 had 89 members. In 2011, half of churches in America have less than 75 people. Even larger churches are seeing declines in some areas. The median percentage of weekly worship attendees to total participants in megachurches (which account for 10% of all Protestant church attenders) has decreased 14% from 2005 to 2015. The percentage of young adults who make up these larger churches has also decreased slightly from 2010 to 2015: ages 18-34 has decreased 1%, and ages 35-49 has decreased 5%.
Church giving has also decreased from 2.4% of a total church member’s income in 2010 to 2.3% in 2011, along with a per capita decrease in the United States and Canada of 2.2%. in 2012. In 2013, Americans increased their giving to charities by 3%, while church giving decreased by another .2%. The increase in charitable giving accompanied by continued decline in church giving suggests that economic resurgence might not restore church giving even to previous levels, as givers have changed their habits and changed their causes.
These numbers show that overall, churches are trending smaller and fewer, and even the largest churches are relatively flat in significant growth-indicator areas. One consequence is that funding levels for church growth have not kept pace with inflation, resulting in staff reductions in new church development efforts. While these numbers underscore the importance of church planting, church revitalization, and international missions, they also paint a clear picture that full-time vocational opportunities in the church are becoming more rare.
The Cost of Preparation Outpaces Expected Wages in Full-time Ministry Vocations
Recent median earnings of college graduates age 25-32 were $45,500, while for those who had only a high school diploma the same measure of earnings was $28,000. While college still pays off, area of major plays a significant role. Financially this is not good news for those pursuing full-time ministry. For example, the average salary for a pastor in the United States is $28,000. Further, as the cost of college increases, the average salaries of pastors are not keeping up. Lifeway Research reports, for example, that SBC pastors see an average increase in salary of 1% per year, roughly 2.9% below annual inflation for that same period of measure. Obviously, most don’t pursue pastoral roles for the financial rewards, but still, these numbers show that not only is it very difficult for the average pastor to provide financially for their family, but also that the cost of college preparation simply does not return a financial payoff for those pursuing pastoral ministry, unlike in most other vocations. Even teachers, who see the second lowest financial payoff for their college efforts at an average salary of $42,000, still significantly outpace pastors by 50%.
The Insulated Sector
While unaccredited Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries face similar pressures to those encountered by their accredited counterparts, they are remarkably well insulated, in large part due to far lower overhead costs. Because of the narrower curricular focus (fewer degrees offered), facility demands are typically not nearly as high and faculty demands are greatly reduced. Facilities costs will typically demand 20-30% of a healthy accredited institution’s annual revenue, and faculty will account for another 30-40%. In these two categories alone, the demands of accreditation greatly inflate the cost of education. The expense of accreditation itself adds another $32,000-41,000 per year on average. Annual costs for operating a credible unaccredited institution can be less than half of those for an accredited school.
For a school with a narrow mission focus in Bible and ministry, that is preparing people for vocation and service in shrinking and dollar-starved employment sectors, being part of an economic lower class may mean the difference between closure and survival for an institution. Further, lessening the financial burden of operation may provide the best environment to focus on the mission of the institution. For example, Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute (Hurst, Texas) offers eleven degree programs in five curriculum areas (Bible and theology, Christian education, ministry, messianic studies, and Biblical languages). Frontier School of the Bible (LaGrange, Wyoming) offers only one undergraduate degree program in one curricular area (Bible). Cornerstone Bible Institute (Hot Springs, South Dakota) offers a three-year program in Bible and ministry areas.
While each of the three of these unaccredited schools have good reputations and a high degree of competence in their areas, their cost of attendance is a fraction of the average accredited cost. Frontier’s cost per semester is roughly $3,125 per semester including tuition, books, and room and board. Cornerstone’s cost is roughly $2,600 per semester including tuition, books, and room and board. Tyndale’s cost varies from $180 (undergraduate) to $300 (graduate) per course, for a full time per-semester cost of $1,146 (undergraduate) to $1,326 (graduate), including tuition and fees. Compared to a typical $7,000-8,000 per-semester cost for a private accredited education, the financial disparity is significant.
Of course there are concerns for the unaccredited sector. There is a general perception that unaccredited necessarily means diploma mill. Accreditation typically demands a high degree of peer review in order to maintain a reasonable degree of quality control. But in the cases of the three unaccredited schools mentioned above, there is a higher-education industry standard degree of academic rigor and transparency that separates these schools – and others like them – from diploma mills. Unaccredited does not necessarily mean a lower degree of quality, though unaccredited allows an institution with low integrity to offer a subpar product presented as something other than that. Still, recent controversies especially involving accredited for-profit schools underscore the reality that accredited schools are not immune to quality and transparency issues either. Accreditation is not the ultimate determiner of the quality of an institution, so this sector cannot be dismissed without a much closer case by case examination of the institutions being considered.
Another challenge faced by unaccredited schools is the ongoing and often unmet need for advancement and development efforts. These efforts are typically limited by minimalist infrastructure and a focus on student recruiting. Successful donor recruiting often requires a level of operational commitment that exceeds the narrow (missional) focus of these institutions. While overall costs of operation are lower, overall investment in marketing and advancement is also lower, and inhibits growth. Still, greater investment in growth and development typically leads to greater cost of operation which is generally passed on to the student. If costs rise disproportionately (in relation to accredited education), this sector begins to lose its appeal. This is the very delicate balance these schools are attempting to manage.
The economically lower class sector of unaccredited Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries show some potential for sustainability and a greater degree of market stability than its accredited counterpart, but not just due to internal and market factors. Government regulation, especially related to gender politics, creates a significant external financial pressure. One of the major reasons schools pursue accreditation is to capitalize on federally guaranteed financial aid. With that financial guarantee comes regulations, and in the current climate, those regulations are often unsympathetic to the doctrine and mission of Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries. Accredited schools are acutely less insulated than their unaccredited counterparts, largely because more than half of accredited schools’ tuition revenue is from federally guaranteed funding. This external market threat is one much more readily engaged by the unaccredited Bible college sector, as their finances do not depend on government funds. Further, when government regulation impacts the doctrine and mission of accredited schools, the unaccredited ones are often able to withstand the pressure and maintain their stance, as they are positioned in such a way as not to be as significantly impacted financially. This factor alone is a significant indicator of a potentially strong future for the unaccredited Bible college sector.
THREE CATEGORIES OF CHRISTIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS: EUC, EMC, ELC
Despite continually rising costs of accredited college education, the number of full-time ministry roles are decreasing, and financial compensation for those roles is decreasing (relative to other vocations). Many Bible colleges are seeing decreased demand for their programs due to these simple market principles. This decline manifests itself in lack of sustained revenue growth on both the tuition and advancements side: there is less money to spend on tuition for education in this sector, and there is less money being given to support this sector.
For those schools that have predominantly relied on tuition revenue, the decline is, in many cases, catastrophic. The failure in revenue growth begets a failure to reinvest for future growth and infrastructure, contributing to already inefficient cost structures. The ultimate result for these schools is a visible and measurable decline that motivates even more prospective students to either choose larger colleges who have demonstrably greater resources and stability, or to abandon ministry majors altogether. As a result, smaller colleges continue to lose market share to larger ones, and one by one, smaller schools are disappearing. This type of “survival of the fittest” market condition is often good for improving quality in providing goods and services, but it can come at the cost of individual institutions that don’t have the strength to compete.
The few institutions in the economic upper class (hereafter, EUC) of Christian higher education are seeing some growth, but because of some unrepeatable augmentations (e.g., mergers and acquisitions) it is difficult yet to predict the long term sustainability. The outlook seems strong for those institutions that can establish themselves as hitting the 350 student threshold, sustaining revenue above 2%, reinvesting for future growth, developing alternate significant sources of funding, and employing efficient cost structures. Schools that are able to achieve these markers are best positioned to sustain. Institutions in this sector are growing largely through strategic institutional growth initiatives and partnerships, and a broadening of academic offerings.
The economic lower class (hereafter, ELC) of unaccredited Biblical training schools are largely insulated from some of the key costs and pressures felt by their accredited counterparts. The best of these institutions are lean and agile, and capable of withstanding some degree of market fluctuation. Because these schools have been successful in mission focus they have largely been effective in keeping their administrative and expense burden at a minimum.
It is the economic middle class (hereafter, EMC) of Bible colleges that faces the greatest challenges and even extinction. The model of accredited Bible and ministry education is simply too expensive for prospective students who are facing diminishing full-time opportunities with lower financial compensation. Prospective students who, twenty years ago, might not have hesitated to enroll in an EMC institution are now having to reconsider. If they intend to pursue full-time vocational ministry, then they must be more open to the ELC option, as accreditation is not a significant factor for pastoral ministry and missions positions. Because of that flexibility on the part of hiring entities, there will be an openness on the part of those who would pursue those roles.
However, if the prospective student is looking for a vocation outside of a church or missions setting in which to serve and minister, then accreditation becomes a definitive factor. This is the type of student who is looking more and more to the economic upper class, being willing to go to significant expense. A 2015 survey of prospective college students indicated that academic programs and availability of financial aid were both higher considerations than the actual cost of tuition. One key implication of that study is that prospective students are willing to pay more if their immediate outgo is manageable and if the perceived quality of the institution is worth the added expense. Herein lies the challenge for EMC Bible colleges: they are providing an education that cost roughly twice that of the ELC institutions, but the difference in perceived value and quality is often not substantial enough to offset the increased cost. So perspective students are not choosing the EMC as they once did. The major difference between the two sectors is simply accreditation (and all that implies), and for ministry training, accreditation seems to offer little value.
At the same time, they struggle to match the quality of the economic upper echelon of institutions and are, again, minimally competitive. Because of better competition above and below, the middle class of Christian higher education is disappearing rapidly. Institutions in that sector must realize that they have to make choice regarding their identity. Will they back away from the accreditation, facilities, and personnel commitments that the middle class demands and move into a niche in the economic lower class, or will they strive to move from the middle class into the upper echelon? The statistics and trends seem to indicate that the middle class of Christian higher education as a sector has already died (or at least become nearly unmanageable). In the estimation of this writer, schools in that sector must move up or down. If they fail to do so, they will move out.
EUC institutions are characterized by a broadening of academic programs beyond traditional pastoral and missions preparations, adding programs that, while strategic for ministry, offer vocational opportunities. In the EUC sector, Grace Bible College (Grand Rapids, Michigan) has the most diverse offerings, with degrees in visual, performing, and media arts, engineering, history and political science, languages, literature and communication, science, math, nursing, behavioral science, business, education, and ministry studies. In addition to its historical missions training emphasis, Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, Illinois and Spokane, Washington) offers degrees in communications, counseling psychology, elementary education, applied linguistics. Lancaster Bible College (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) also reaches beyond the scope of traditional ministry preparation, with a diverse offering of degrees including business administration, communication, criminal justice, professional counseling, social work, education, health and physical education, sports management, and music.
With a view toward institutional health, Columbia Bible College (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada) has a vocational emphasis and vision for the future, offering several programs outside the mainstream of traditional ministry preparation. Columbia offers a degree in outdoor leadership, with ten government recognized certifications centered on tourism. Columbia also offers a degree in counseling and caregiving, which the school promotes as preparation “for a rewarding career that is relational and rooted in helping others.” Columbia’s general studies degree is promoted to those who wish to “pursue a career” or “be a teacher.” Columbia also offers a non-degree emergency rescue technician certification. The program offers career opportunity to its graduates without further academic requirement, though it can also lead to a bachelor’s degree.
In addition to some of the above examples of schools seeking out strategic partnerships and initiatives, schools in the EUC have shown a clear emphasis on academic broadening. It appears that institutions in this category have recognized that they are in a competitive market of higher education that goes beyond simply Christian education. These schools have realized that in order to have a sustainable model to fulfill their missions, they must become competitive as higher education institutions. They are no longer competing against schools in a small religious sector, but are competing against public and private institutions in an increasing globalization of the higher education marketplace. EMC schools with hopes of moving into the EUC and achieving sustainability, must realize that they are in a global economy of higher education, and must look beyond provincial market-share models. In pursuing this more aggressive stance, these institutions must also realize that they must be all the more diligent to pursue mission fulfillment, and to avoid sacrificing mission integrity on the altar of sustainability.
A CASE STUDY ON THE FEASIBILITY OF JUMPING FROM EMC TO EUC: CALVARY UNIVERSITY
Calvary University has historically been positioned in the EMC of Christian higher education, and in recent years has found itself in the same decline that many institutions in that sector have seen. Still, Calvary has a unique set of positives that, if properly leveraged, can position the school for a sustainable model of mission fulfillment. Calvary’s recent rebrand from Calvary Bible College to Calvary University is a (very well received) public statement that Calvary is prepared for and expects to be competing with universities for students. Calvary’s diverse degree offerings (nearly 50 degree programs at the undergrad and grad levels) give the school the product line to compete in the broader marketplace. Calvary’s insistence on and success in maintaining regional (Higher Learning Commission) and Christian (The Association for Biblical Higher Education) accreditation positions the school to compete with secular public and private institutions, while maintaining a strong accountability to its Christian mission and mandate, to “prepare Christians to live and serve in the church and in the world according to a Biblical worldview.”
In addition to these three major strengths, Calvary is building on a number of other hard-earned advantages. Calvary has a greater-than-average percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, and is developing and implementing strategic plans to increase that percentage further still. Calvary has developed its own publishing house (Calvary University Press) to provide a vehicle to export the excellence of Calvary’s faculty and expand Calvary’s influence. Calvary owns a good portion of its current campus and is working to increase the owned campus footprint for future growth and development, without incurring debt. Speaking of debt, Calvary has no debt except for secured debt acquired for the purposes of maximizing cash flow and building credit credibility for future projects. Finally, despite three years of stagnant or declining enrollment, Calvary has seen increased enrollment (5.7%) in Spring of 2017, and is forecasting continued growth for the Fall.
Addressing the 6 Concerns
Calvary University has some key factors already in place that allow the school to compete in the broader marketplace. While (1) prospective students are choosing larger colleges over smaller colleges for their greater resources, Calvary can appeal to that market, promoting a history of mission loyalty and fulfillment with a distinctly Biblical focus, a credible and diverse accredited degree offering, an accomplished faculty, a burgeoning publishing house, a growing campus, an increasingly stable financial and enrollment status, an across-the-board tuition reduction for Fall 2017, and a refined Study Work Program, along with an expansion of student aid and scholarships.
Effectiveness in promoting these assets to the prospective student market will help Calvary (3) gain market share versus public and private competitors. Recent corporate restructuring and ongoing cost-model adjustments will help decrease (5) inefficiency of cost structures. Building on the inertia of resulting growth, broadening of donor base, grant acquisition, and additional revenue streams (Calvary University Press, SWP incubators, etc.) will help Calvary decrease its (6) reliance on tuition revenue and (2) sustain revenue growth above 2%. Effective strategic planning will result in aggressive allocation of resources for (4) reinvestment in future growth.
Calvary University has already taken major steps toward ensuring mission integrity, including adjusting foundational documents to mandate its longstanding Biblical focus in an institution wide manner. Calvary is also moving aggressively to address the 6 Concerns facing institutions of higher education, and remains steadfastly unwilling to sacrifice mission integrity for sustainability. It is this writer’s belief that both can be achieved, but it will take a courageous and comprehensive understanding that Calvary University is not a Bible college in the historical sense, nor is it a para-church ministry in the organizational sense. Instead, it is an institution of higher education, committed to excellence in its educational programs, and committed to Biblical preparation and worldview equipping as its leading distinctive. For Calvary to maintain mission integrity and to achieve sustainability, its leadership must be equally aggressive in pursuing both outcomes, with an unwavering commitment to mission integrity over sustainability.
 The number 350 is an important benchmark, as it indicates a school has infrastructure to move from the smallest category to a next-level institution. It is significant how few schools have even reached the 320 mark.
 Richard Krejcir, “Statistics and Reasons for Church Decline,” viewed at http://www.churchleadership.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=42346&columnid=4545.
 Barna Group, “Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because of the People They Attract,” viewed at https://www.barna.com/research/small-churches-struggle-to-grow-because-of-the-people-they-attract/.
 Scott Lencke, “The Average Church Size in America,” viewed at https://prodigalthought.net/2011/01/26/the-average-church-size-in-america/.
 Samuel Smith, “Megachurches Seeing Drop in Weekly Attendance,” Dec. 3, 2015, The Christian Post, viewed at http://www.christianpost.com/news/megachurches-growing-face-declining-weekly-attendance-protestant-church-151570/.
 Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, from The Hartford Institute, “Recent Shifts in America’s Largest Protestant Churches: Megachurches 2015 Report,” page 7, viewed at http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/megachurch/2015_Megachurches_Report.pdf.
 Ibid, 9.
 Katherine Burgess, “Report: Church Giving reaches Depression-era record lows” October 24, 2013, in Religion News Service, viewed at http://religionnews.com/2013/10/24/report-church-giving-reaches-depression-era-record-lows/.
 Annalisa Musarra (Religion News Service), “Report: Church Giving Dropped $1.2 Billion in 2010 Recession, March 23, 2012, Christianity Today, viewed at http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2012/march/report-church-giving-dropped-12-billion-in-2010-recession.html.
 Michael Gryboski, “Americans Are Giving More to Charity, Less to the Church, Says Report,” June 18, 2014, The Christian Post, viewed at http://www.christianpost.com/news/americans-are-giving-more-to-charity-less-to-the-church-says-report-121698/.
 Kirk Hadaway and David Roozen, “Denominational Growth and Decline, Part One,” in Church and Denominational Growth, page 45, viewed at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/Church&Denomgrowth/ch&dngrw-pt.1.pdf.
 Andrea Caumont, “Six key findings about going to college,” Pew Research, viewed at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/11/6-key-findings-about-going-to-college/.
 Christian Media Magazine, “A Look at Pastors’ Salaries in the United States”, viewed at http://christianmediamagazine.com/look-pastor-salaries-united-states/.
 Lifeway Research, “SBC Pastor Salaries Not Keeping Up With Inflation,” viewed at http://lifewayresearch.com/2014/09/24/sbc-pastor-salaries-not-keeping-up-with-inflation-2/.
 Wheelan and Elgart, “Accreditation’s Real Cost and Value,” Inside Higher Ed, October 22, 2015, at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/10/22/real-costs-accreditation-and-processs-value-essay.
 Tyndale is not a residency school, having opted not to provide room and board, thus further decreasing operation expenses.
 Rachel Fishman, 2015 College Decisions Survey, Part 1: Deciding to Go to College, NEAP, May 2015, at http://www.edcentral.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/FINAL-College-Decisions-Survey-528.pdf.
 Columbia’s approximate cost per year is roughly $16,500 Canadian, $12,300 U.S.
 ABHE institutions average percentage of faculty with terminal degrees is 56%. Calvary currently stands at 66%, and is planning to increase that percentage to 75%.
 (1) Students choosing larger colleges for their greater resources. (2) Lack of sustained revenue growth above 2%. (3) Trend toward smaller colleges losing market share to larger ones. (4) Failing to reinvest for future growth. (5) Inefficient cost structures. (6) Reliance on tuition revenue.
 “Calvary’s 4 Distinctives” at http://www.calvary.edu/calvary-distinctive/.