As we continue our consideration of the ABHE-Barna What’s Next for Biblical Higher Education? research study implications, we come to a fifth major take-away.



One size does not fit all — and it doesn’t fit most of our prospects.



We have already observed that the pool of traditional age students is trending downward and future upticks in that cohort will almost certainly not be substantial. If your educational delivery model is exclusively or even primarily focused upon enrolling 18-24 year-old single students in traditional four year, campus-based, semester-formatted degree programs, you are consigning yourself to the ultimate niche of niche markets.

The numbers just aren’t there. As I quoted in a previous post, “demographics is destiny.” To put it starkly, seeking to grow your enrollment by getting a larger share of the shrinking pool of traditional-age, residential students is likely a formula for slow, agonizing death.

Best I can tell, significant and sustained success in exclusively traditional residential education can only come in one of three ways:

  • Adoption and flawless execution of a radically-altered, high-endowment business model that eliminates tuition dependence and embraces a high cost/high discount/elite value economic proposition.
  • High selectivity (not necessarily exclusively academic selectivity, but mission-fit selectivity) and enrollment caps, reduced enrollment growth or, likely, enrollment retrenchment based on precise and highly nimble business model optimization.
  • Exceptional differentiation and widely recognized best-in-class excellence. You literally will have to be the very best of the very best.

But the problem is even more complex. Fewer and fewer 18-24 year-old single students actually enroll in and complete a degree in a single institution within four years. True, the most successful traditional private higher educational institutions have cohort completion rates exceeding those of public institutions. But, in fact, the overall completion trend has changed so much that the government’s “completion rate” benchmark goalpost has been moved from 5 years to 6 years and the only student cohorts that count toward statistical benchmarks are non-transfers. That’s a pretty small and shrinking sample of actual enrolled students. It distorts the picture of how many students actually complete college degrees and how long it takes them to do so.

A New Kind of Hacking

Here’s a relatively recent addition to higher educational vocabulary you cannot afford to ignore: hacking. And I don’t mean college degree programs where students pursue professional careers in “ethical hacking.” I’m talking about this: Looking for expedited, economical and customized educational achievement, many of today’s students — including an increasing number of single, traditional-age students — are learning to cobble together the most accessible and advantageous degree pathway they can muster.

Are you thinking this hacking college phenomenon does not apply to education for church occupations? Think again! In fact, it may pertain even more.

Instead of enrolling and persisting to graduation in traditional 4-year degree programs, many of the most gifted and committed emerging church leaders are cobbling together their own in-service, just-in-time, acquisition of knowledge and skills that may ultimately, if circuitously, lead to a baccalaureate (or seminary) degree credential.

To put it as simply and straightforwardly as I can, effective institutions will be ones that offer education through multiple distribution channels that facilitate maximum flexibility and customization. And I should add: multiple and seamlessly interchangeable distribution channels.

If your curricula, course delivery, and credit systems, wittingly or unwittingly, run counter to these trends you will likely lose ground in the battle to sustain or grow enrollment. Contrary to popular opinion, you can accommodate changing student patterns and expectations without compromising your missional integrity. Those who learn to recognize and remove barriers and to facilitate and even exploit this emerging hacking college culture have a chance to grow and flourish. Those who fail to do so by neglect or intention are facing diminished prospects, if not doom.

What to Do?

Start with students, and build curricula and delivery systems that correspond to their realities and wishes, not the conveniences and artificial conventions of faculty members preferential to conventional delivery methods and modes.

Consider the following specific suggestions:

  • Accommodate hackers. Assume students are higher education hackers — and cooperate with, rather than impeding — their efforts. Of course, not all students behave like process-hackers, but the adjustments you make will only strengthen rather than diminish your engagement with more conventionally minded students as well.
  • Stay in touch with non-enrolled. Does your enrollment management team delete non-enrolled students from your admissions database, or do you have a 1-year and 2-year follow-up strategy with your highest mission quality non-enrolled students? Why give up permanently on prospective students who choose a different institution the first time around? Perhaps you should stay in touch and make sure they know your door is open when they have reason to second-guess their original college decision and consider an alternative. For some, perhaps many, their decision not to enroll in your college was not really a “no” but rather a “not now.” Maybe initially enrolling in a local low-cost community college is an aspect of their hacking college strategy.
  • Make it easy for stop-outs to re-enroll. Assume those who “stop-out” are truly stop-outs and look for ways to keep them engaged with your institution and their peers. Why treat “stop-outs” as a pariah and thus reinforce the message that they have “abandoned” you and deserve to be subjected to what amounts to hazing ritual in order to rejoin the institution? Why not think of ways to assume they will return to continue their education — especially if you make them continue to feel they are welcomed and included members of your community.
  • Challenge the process. In their highly acclaimed, researched-based book The Leadership Challenge, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner assert that effective leaders “challenge the process.” Don’t let your registrar’s office or any other campus entity clog the admissions or re-enrollment pipeline. Work on process optimization guided by student perspectives, not staff convenience. And resolve issues — yes, even remove recalcitrant employees — that create process barriers. One of our ABHE presidents who gets this in a big way related how he discovered that more than 200 current students had administrative holds placed on their pre-registration for causes as trivial as a small library fine. A series of well-intentioned process policies and procedures was unwittingly conspiring at cross-currents to frustrate enrollment growth and retention. Students — perhaps even moreso the most mature “adult” students — will move on when they encounter inefficiency and intractability. Is someone empowered and accountable to keep watch over process efficiency in your new student admissions and current student registration pipelines? If not, I’m willing to bet there are enrollment gains to be had for you if you there.
  • Welcome college credit imports. Assume students will want to import credit from other postsecondary institutions and accumulate credit-by-examination sources (e.g., CLEP), and credit-for-life experience (CLE). Adopt and implement policies and student advising systems that make it easy for students to do so.
  • Remove transfer barriers. Work with faculty to remove transfer credit barriers. Push back when they insist, “if they didn’t take our course, it shouldn’t count.” If a large number of your students are obtaining their general education credits via CLEP, CLE, or community college, address the biblical worldview formation deficits by means of foundational and/or capstone biblical/theological courses. You don’t have to compromise on learning outcomes in biblical integration. Agree on a rigorous assessment tool or portfolio requirement that authentically validates student biblical worldview integration competency.
  • Multiply delivery options. Develop proficiency in as many alternate delivery modes (distance education; extension education; service learning; church-based competency-based [CBTE]; blended classroom, etc.) that you can deliver on a cost-effective basis.
  • Align faculty with delivery diversification. Select, develop, and retain faculty who are willing and able to thrive in non-traditional delivery formats.
  • Enlist articulation allies. Proactively forge articulation agreements with other institutions in order to help students access education outside your primary delivery modes without penalizing them.
  • Schedule to suit students. Ask students about educational calendar and course/program scheduling parameters that work best for them. Here’s an example: Some years ago I worked on development of a graduate program designed to allow mid-career missionaries to earn graduate degrees that would strengthen their missiological and intercultural understanding and increase access in countries that were elevating educational requirements for long term visas. The program was scheduled such that missionaries on “home assignment” (aka, furlough) could complete the degree over the course of 2-3 missionary terms. The program was just what missionaries and sending agencies wanted. Enrollment grew … until it didn’t. Mysteriously, enrollment began to sag. Had we reached market penetration? Was the program’s quality diminishing? Not at all. Thankfully, the administration thought to ask students why their enrollment interest was declining. And they learned that the length of missionary home assignments was trending shorter. Traditional 1-year furloughs were being replaced by 4-month furloughs. Given other home assignment priorities (e.g., church reporting, support-raising), the maximum time available for graduate course enrollment was on the order of seven weeks, not the fifteen-week length of a traditional semester. Without reducing class hours or course requirements, the school adopted an intensive, 7-week course format and, viola, enrollment was back on track! Are you developing a program? Is enrollment sagging in one of your existing programs? Ask your students (and prospective students) what would be optimal scheduling.

Bottom Line

Successful institutions will augment traditional campus-based delivery and will multiply and integrate distribution of their educational programs through alternative scheduling, extension centers, and online delivery modalities. This strategy is especially opportune because the potential enrollment pool size more than doubles when non-traditional age and life circumstance groupings are intentionally addressed. If your institution is sticking with the traditional campus-based program format and delivery model, shore up your facilities and finances, and prepare for retrenchment.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


  Five Lies Our Culture Tells

David Brooks has a reputation for deftly exposing and remorselessly debunking the central lies of our culture. He has done it again in this NY Times Op-Ed and in his new book, The Second Mountain. We are in need, not of a political revolution but a cultural one, says Brooks. I wish he had affirmed the need for a spiritual visitation, not a revolution—but his insights are valuable anyway.

  Philip Yancey on Easter at Columbine

No doubt you could not escape the new media coverage of the 20th anniversary of “Columbine”—a mass shooting that has defined a generation and remains a major touchpoint in cultural discourse about gun violence. Conspicuously absent, however, was any scintilla of the Christian witness among many direct and indirect victims of suffering from that atrocity. With his characteristic prophetic grace, Philip Yancey helps open a window through which we can observe and interpret that fragrant and abidingly fruitful testimony.