definitional dilemma

Here’s the next installment in a series of posts in which I am setting about to unpack the ABHE-Barna Group college enrollment research project, major findings of which are summarized in the monograph: What’s Next for Biblical Higher Education?

If you don’t yet have a copy or you haven’t made use of the accompanying video resources, what are you waiting for? Download them here:

In my last post, I named the following major categories in which I believe the data call us to transformative thinking and action:



The key to enrollment success and mission fulfillment.




This is not a problem, it is a fact of life.




Today’s prospective students are hungry for what we’re good at.




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




Will you be talking past your audiences, or will your digital media mastery have a leveling effect?


And last—or, actually first, our …


Definitional Dilemma

The tension between established public perception about the nature and scope of Bible colleges and the institutional self-identity, scope, and aspirations of many ABHE member colleges.


Simply put, most of the Christian public, even the prospective students and parents most compatible with our mission and educational programs, have either a blurred or boxed conception of who we are.

We spent a lot of time working with the Barna Group team developing a nuanced definition of our distinctive biblical higher education niche. Here’s what we came up with:

  • Bible colleges: require 21-30 Bible credits, promote Christian discipleship, and offer programs and hands-on experiences that emphasize church/ministry vocations as well as other professions that help students clarify and cultivate their calling from God. They also require faculty and students to affirm belief and conduct themselves consistent with biblical faith.

On the other hand,

  • Christian liberal arts colleges: offer academic and professional programs based upon a strong liberal arts core. They promote integration of faith and learning for faculty and students and typically require 6-12 credit hours of Bible/theology. They also require students and faculty to affirm their personal faith in Jesus and subscribe to a community covenant.

Here’s the problem: faith leaders, Christian parents, and prospective students don’t typically relate to that definition of who we are and what we do. They either blur us in with Christian liberal arts colleges or they (more typically) box us in by assuming only those definitely called to serve in formal church ministry occupations should consider us.

What’s more, when presented with the following list of postsecondary educational options, Bible college and Christian higher education options were at or near the bottom of the actual choice list for the overwhelming majority of committed Christian students and parents.

  1. 2 year / community college
  2. Bible college
  3. Christian college / university
  4. Liberal arts college
  5. Private college or university
  6. Public college or university
  7. Vocational / technical program
  8. Military

Thus, we are faced with a dilemma. Either we choose to define ourselves as exclusively preparing for church ministry occupations (what most people who venture any definition actually perceive is our niche), or we recognize we have to overcome two major challenges in competing with other higher education options:

  • Relatively low demand for Christian higher education
  • Relatively low differentiation from other Christian higher education sectors

I think individual ABHE members will make different choices as to how to resolve this dilemma. As an association, exclusive vocational/occupational ministry preparation does not constitute a boundary marker—either in terms of accreditation standards or member profile.

If you decide to retain the Bible college name and identity, the majority of your stakeholder pool will likely underestimate the range and relevance of your educational programs. You will have to work very hard to overcome the boxing effect.

If, on the other hand, you choose a less rigid definition such as the one we employed in the Barna research effort, you will have lots of work to do in order to overcome the blurring effect and to differentiate your institution from other Christian colleges.

And that issue—differentiation—is the subject of my next post. Let’s keep thinking and talking together.

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


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