Bethel College supporters got a wake-up call that all who appreciate Mennonite higher education need to hear. An accreditation review team recommended the college be placed on probation due to a 15-year pattern of budget deficits. Bethel will need to balance its budget within two years or risk losing accreditation.
Bethel hasn’t done anything illegal, and it remains accredited. But probation is a serious matter: The college hasn’t met the standard of fiscal health that the Higher Learning Commission expects. Maintaining accreditation is essential, so Bethel will have to correct a long-term problem in a short time.
President Jon Gering is confident the college is up to the challenge. “It’s nothing we can’t solve,” he said Aug. 21. “It’s significant, but it’s doable.”
Thomas Stuckey, the interim president of Mennonite Education Agency, sees Bethel’s situation not as an embarrassment or a punishment but an opportunity to rally its supporters. He commends Gering’s leadership and Bethel’s openness in addressing the sanction. He sees the North Newton, Kan., college’s financial problems as an example of the “trying financial times” affecting small private colleges across the country, including the five affiliated with Mennonite Church USA.
“Our institutions are very strong academically, and sometimes we don’t fully appreciate what we have,” he said.
Financial fragility is a familiar story at Mennonite colleges. Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., made budget and faculty cuts this year. Rosedale Bible College in Ohio “has burned through significant reserves over the past year,” President Jeremy Miller wrote in Beacon, the CMC (Conservative Mennonite Conference) magazine. Grace University in Omaha, Neb., a school with Mennonite roots, closed in 2018.
Small private colleges face significant headwinds. They’re competing for a shrinking pool of high school seniors, a situation that will get worse as a smaller cohort of children born after the Great Recession approaches college age. Families are questioning the value of degrees that may require taking on a large burden of debt. (Every family interested in a Mennonite college should find out what the financial aid package will be. The cost may be much less than the sticker price.)
We shouldn’t take our church colleges’ existence for granted. Under the headline, “America’s Disappearing Private Colleges,” The Wall Street Journal says that in Massachusetts alone 17 colleges have closed over the past six years. In Vermont within the past year, four have closed or announced plans to shut down. Moody’s Investors Service projects 15 closures annually in the next few years, adding that “more schools will likely merge with other institutions.”
In that vein, one can’t fail to notice Bethel and Hesston colleges — affiliated with the same denomination, each with fewer than 500 students last year — stand seven miles apart. It may be time to think in new ways about pooling resources and eliminating duplication.
A public reckoning of Bethel’s financial struggles flashes a warning sign for Mennonite higher education. Bethel will count on its loyal alumni to help meet the challenge. This is a time for all who recognize our colleges as a great asset to rally behind the institutions that serve us well.