Speaking Out column
The financial meltdown is landing devastating blows to college campuses nationwide. The current higher education climate mirrors corporate America as colleges cut programs, mandate hiring freezes and hold tightly to their endowments. Unfortunately, the grip on their endowments is anything but firm. The University of Colorado, Boulder, recently lost $63 million of its endowment, and Harvard University lost $8 billion of its endowment in four months.
The endowments of these institutions were strong to begin with ($750 million and $36.9 billion, respectively), so if they are feeling the effects, imagine what the financial crisis means to Mennonite colleges? Unlike Harvard, Mennonite colleges cannot afford financial losses to their already humble savings. To exacerbate the problem of declining endowments, Mennonite colleges, like most private colleges, rely on tuition generated from student enrollment to meet operating costs. However, according to a study released in December 2008 by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the average cost of tuition is outpacing family income, which means it will become increasingly difficult for families to afford the cost of a Mennonite college, let alone other colleges. The combination of this financial climate and dwindling enrollments could be a perfect storm for Mennonite colleges.
As a graduate of two Mennonite colleges (Hesston (Kan.) College ’99, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., ’02), I cringe at the thought of any of our denomination’s institutions closing their doors. I credit my time enrolled in Mennonite colleges with helping shape my faith, my values and my worldview as well as providing me with close friends and mentors who are rooted in the Anabaptist tradition. Our Mennonite colleges and seminaries are primary sources for church leadership, so by failing to support our educational institutions we indirectly fail to support the future of our church.
As a young Mennonite and a student of higher education administration, I wish to pose a few questions to the larger Mennonite community:
1. Do we as Mennonites value Mennonite higher education?
2. If we do, then what is the best way to support our colleges during these difficult financial times?
As a former Mennonite college admissions counselor, I can make the case that traditional pipelines of Mennonite students are decreasing in terms of student enrollments and community support. Part of this can be attributed to Mennonites having fewer children, and part of it comes from parents encouraging their children to stay closer to home. Before enrollments drop too low and endowments dissolve, might we begin a public discussion to find ways of supporting our colleges before they are forced to close their doors?
It is difficult to support any college in today’s market, which means we must think of creative ways to provide more incentives for our children to attend Mennonite schools (for example, partial student loan forgiveness for every year served with Mennonite Central Committee). On a more controversial note, at what point do we borrow the idea from corporate America of merger and put it to use with our Mennonite colleges? If we can’t financially support five Mennonite colleges, should we support one college with five branch campuses? This has obvious practical roadblocks, such as accreditation and alumni outcry, and I fear I’ll be accused of institutional treason for even suggesting it. I work for a private college that is asking similar questions of institutional sustainability. Unlike Mennonite colleges, however, it is forced to make these difficult decisions without the support of a faith-based community.
Our Mennonite colleges belong to us, and now more than ever they need our prayers, support and creative thinking.
Brad Miller attends First Mennonite Church in Denver.