The Disappearing Middle Class in Christian Higher Education, Part 2

Read Part 1.

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.27 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.28 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.29 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.30

With a view toward institutional health, Columbia Bible College (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada)31 has a vocational emphasis and vision for the future,32 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.33 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.”34 Columbia’s general studies degree is promoted to those who wish to “pursue a career” or “be a teacher.”35 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.36

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,37 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 Concerns38

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.39 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.


27 Rachel Fishman, 2015 College Decisions Survey, Part 1: Deciding to Go to College, NEAP, May 2015, at….




31 Columbia’s approximate cost per year is roughly $16,500 Canadian, $12,300 U.S.






37 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%.

38 (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.

39 “Calvary’s 4 Distinctives” at

Christopher Cone 2016

Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.

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There are 6 Comments

apward's picture

Does anyone else feel like this series suddenly got turned into a commercial for Calvary? I'm sure he's excited about his university, but this feels like a bate and switch. I thought this was going to be a neutral scholarly series of articles, and was surprised to find it to be a "case study" of the university where Dr. Cone happens to be president (which is mentioned in the bio, but was not mentioned in the text). Please correct me if I'm wrong, maybe I missed it, but I didn't see anywhere in this 1st or 2nd article where he mentions his role at the university or his bias in using Calvary as his "case study."

The first time I read the articles the bio said that he was "president of null" which certainly seemed odd. Obviously the link was broken, and I'm not going to fault him for that. But after I read the article and went to Calvary's website and saw that the author was also the President, I felt a little manipulated.


Bert Perry's picture

Maybe, or maybe more precisely Dr. Cone's report to the board of directors, I'd guess.  I don't mind it, really.

To me, though, while I appreciate the differentiation between unaccredited Bible colleges and such, I'm not quite sure that I see them as that meaningful.  Rather, I think we have more of an issue with does a given school have a credible value proposition for the prospective student?  As I've noted elsewhere, if your pastor has failed to communicate the essentials of Biblical faith and worldview in the first 18 years of your life, two to four more years (or more) at your pastor's alma mater, or at his favorite Bible college, is unlikely to solve the problem.


Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture


You're just so mean. Smile

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

....and to the point of needing a real value proposition, I do think Calvary is doing exactly the right thing by being accredited and having degree programs that are more diverse than "pastor", "missionary", and "pastor's wife."  Sort of kidding on that last one. 

What I'd love to see more often--and perhaps Dr. Cone will inform me "we're already there, smart aleck" (it would be wonderful to hear that)--would be a more significant return to the old freshman core curriculum including logic and such.  Not critical thinking, logic.  Not worldview, logic.

There's that mean side of me again!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

apward wrote:

Does anyone else feel like this series suddenly got turned into a commercial for Calvary?

Don't feel this way because:

  • He mentioned other institutions positively.
  • He did not overtly "push" his school
  • He did not disparage other schools (remember how BJ was at the throat of Liberty years ago!)
  • You would want the author of an article like this to be a SME (Subject Matter Expert)
  • Who better to be a SME than a U President
  • Finally: I think he is spot on about his points

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