How religious schools help tackle key higher education challenges

Written by William C. Duncan

January 19, 2023

By the time he was 30, Andrew Carnegie had been successful with “business interests in iron works, steamers on the Great Lakes, railroads, and oil wells,” and he would go on to develop the largest steel company in the world. In 1870, when he was 35, he began the philanthropic efforts for which he is still known.

In 1905, Carnegie launched the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The aim of the Foundation was to provide pensions for retiring college teachers. In addition to helping teachers, the pension fund would be used to incentivize improvements in higher education. The fund, however, specifically excluded religious schools from participation.

This exclusion was described in an event held at the American Council for Education in Washington, D.C., last week. The council hosted an important gathering last week about the contributions of religious higher education. Council president Ted Mitchell mentioned the exclusion in his opening remarks but explained why excluding the more than 900 religious colleges and universities is shortsighted.

Specifically, religious schools have an important part to play in addressing some of the most significant challenges facing higher education.

Panel discussions highlighted innovative ways religious schools are demonstrating ways to solve these problems.

The College of the Ozarks, for instance, was founded by a Presbyterian minister in 1906. Its remarkable model addresses the serious concern of affordability of higher education:

The institution provides the opportunity for full-time students to work at one of more than 100 campus jobs or industries to help pay for part of their tuition. The remaining portion of the students’ expenses is covered through scholarships provided by gifts and contributions from donors who believe in and support the programs and policies of the College. These student work programs and donor contributions allow C of O students to graduate debt-free.

College president Brad Johnson explained how this works, as quoted in the Deseret News: “‘At College of the Ozarks, students don’t pay tuition,’ Johnson said. ‘They never see a tuition bill. Rather, students work 15 hours a week and two, 40-hour work weeks throughout the academic year.’”

President Keoni Kauwe described BYU-Hawaii’s religious commitment that has allowed it to make important advances in ensuring affordability for students: “‘We believe every person on earth deserves a chance to magnify their talents.’” Thus, the school:

offers a work-study program called IWORK to help students from Oceania and the Asian Rim afford an American higher education. Students work 19 hours a week during school and 40 hours a week during breaks and receive housing, food, tuition and fees and a stipend. The program funds about half of students, Kauwe said, with a goal to reach two-thirds of students. …

BYU-Hawaii serves 3,000 students from 60 countries, 62% of whom are low-income students. While students in the IWORK program are from what Kauwe said are backgrounds correlated with poor outcomes, their GPAs and graduation rates are the same as students without financial need.

Other panels – which will be discussed in future posts – talked about contributions to addressing related challenges including accessibility to higher education, helping students complete college once they start, and expanding the research agenda of higher education.

Among the most memorable observations at the D.C. event was made in the opening remarks. Ted Mitchell said that an education without values is a valueless education. Religious schools can make a unique contribution because they begin with this premise. By pursuing their religious missions, they contribute to resolving systemic challenges in ways that could benefit all schools and students. In this way, protection of religious pluralism benefits far more than religious schools and religious students. It benefits society generally.

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