Religiously-affiliated colleges and universities bear a distinctive trait in the higher education market: they are religious. These institutions are mainly small colleges with varying degrees of religiosity. Many of these schools have abandoned their religious roots from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Wake Forest. Some have a present but tense relationship with their religious denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and its schools. Some will be active participants in their religious heritage while others may only recognize it in the archives and “about” pages of their websites.
A problem that creates strain between a college’s religious identity and its educational mission is called “mission creep.” This is when the fundamental mission of an institution changes over time mostly to adapt to education market changes. As online education, part-time instruction, and pressure towards job preparation increase, mission creep places the religious roots of an institution in danger.
But as Gordon College professor Thomas Albert Howard notes:
For a brighter future, these schools will need to do more than look enviously at the Ivies or anxiously at their peers; they will have to look within and boldly and creatively articulate what sets them apart.
Maintaining a decidedly liberal arts centered curriculum and nourishing religious roots are two critical areas that will support institutional distinctiveness. The hazy spot is how distinctive an institution’s religious identity needs to be while maintaining viability in the higher education market. Over-distinctiveness can creep into sectarianism which relies on a niche of students who are willing to adhere to stricter faith and behavior requirements for matriculation. Under-distinctiveness can lead to a loss of that religious identity.
Yes, there is an opportunity to stand out as an alternative in the market. But the religious institution has to move ahead deliberately and with care in order to be successful. This is not a cheap education, either. As I concluded in my dissertation on this topic:
Diversity implies that institutions have to maintain boundaries in their mission in order to maintain an identity distinct from other colleges and universities. The line to tread is between diversity inside the walls of the evangelical college or university inviting the risk of secularization and raising the sectarian walls so high that fresh thinking can neither get in nor maintain enough intelligibility and coherence for the world outside to care.
Now more than ever, treading the tightrope between the high walls and narrow doors of sectarianism on one end and non-religious secular education on the other is the challenge these institutions will have to answer.