From time to time there are efforts to work out cooperative agreements or merge various schools. Lincoln Christian College now operates an extension on the campus of what was once Eastern Christian College. At one time Nebraska Christian College, Manhattan Christian College, and Minnesota Bible College (now Crossroads College) discussed merger and an ill-advised purchase of a campus in Dennison, Iowa. Kentucky Christian College and Great Lakes Christian College discussed merging to form Stone-Campbell University. A good friend of mine and I once talked (in jest) about trying to merge Boise Bible College and Intermountain Bible College and move both schools to Salt Lake City. We were uncertain, however, if we could lease facilities in the Mormon Tabernacle for our classrooms and administration. Our discussions in fun were about as successful as efforts to combine the forces of our colleges.
Oh, mergers, if you can call them that, have occurred. Intermountain Bible College closed its doors in June 1985. Boise Bible College merged the IBC library with theirs. Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University or HI-U) agreed to manage the college's records and Platte Valley Bible College tried unsuccessfully to "merge" its alumni base with those of IBC. That same year Midwest Christian College merged with Ozark Christian College. The Midwest merger came largely because the college's income was insufficient to underwrite its programs.
In my view, most mergers or cooperative efforts failed for several reasons. First, alumni and constituent support bases resisted change. They saw themselves being lost in the shuffle and service to their region reduced. Second, some colleges saw themselves as bastions of sound doctrine and they were hesitant to join a sister college they considered less firm on the fundamentals. Third, there was all that money in a given region that would dry up. Supporters of one college would often cease their support rather than shift to the support of another school.
About the only real cooperative effort that I've seen in recent years (admittedly, now, I'm out of the loop so there may be more) is the formation of the Consortium of Christian Colleges for Distance Learning. I am a part of that effort because of the invitation of Dr. James B. North to teach a section of Restoration History online. Jim and I regularly have between 60-100 students each semester in this class from a variety of Christian Colleges. Frankly, I'm uncertain exactly how the consortium started but I do know that Gordon Clymer has pushed it and his vision has guided it for some time. The consortium offers a number of online classes in youth work, world religions, history, and Bible. The consortium sees its largest enrollments in Restoration History, but that may change with the launch of North's Survey of Church History this fall.
Herein is the rub! While the consortium meets a real need for smaller schools who can ill afford to hire instructors to teach specialized courses, the consortium's potential is unrealized. In 1995 I believed online education was the "wave of the future." I no longer believe that. Online education is now! College newsletters reveal that many recognize that the bulk of students entering college are considered "nontraditional." According to a recent issue of Platte Valley Bible College's "Western Challenge," the Department of Education reports that nontraditional students comprise more than 75 percent of those entering college. Platte Valley's answer to the need is to establish extension schools in Denver and other locations. Boise Bible College is also establishing extension locations. With the technology available today it is unnecessary to go to the expense of locating facilities or paying for travel costs when students can study online. Students currently studying online in Restoration History now view Jim North's lectures via Real Media files on CDs. Some thought is being given to using DVD now that this technology is becoming widespread. With broadband, students could also access one web site any time day or night and view the lectures through streaming video. The point is, while some of our schools are developing online classes, particularly larger schools, this is a technology that could be made more widely available. In fact, it is not impossible to establish an Online Christian College utilizing the best instructors in the brotherhood to provide a quality education. It would make education available anywhere in the world at any time day or night at minimal cost. By translating materials into various languages, such classes could be made available even in the Third World as broadband eventually becomes more prevalent worldwide.
The consortium has consistently refused to even consider developing a curriculum that could lead to a degree. Why is that? The representatives of the various colleges involved rightly see online education as a threat to their existence. They often mouth platitudes that the reason they are hesitant to develop degree programs online is because of the necessity of student face-to-face interaction. In my view, the real reason is money. Our schools continue to invest millions in college campuses and other facilities. We spend additional millions on a host of instructors, many of whom have no experience in located ministry and in spite of advanced degrees are unable to communicate effectively to a generation devoted to "screen time."
When I went to Canton in 1995, I did so for several reasons. First, there was a personal need on my part growing out of frustration in my ministry and the death of my associate minister and best friend. Second, I believed the future of Christian Education rested with a megachurch committed to raising up a ministry from within utilizing resources available from Christian Colleges and Universities and providing practical experience on the field. Third, I wanted to accept the challenge of helping turn around a historic church.
Not long after arriving in Canton, Dr. North asked me to teach some graduate courses. At that time, I pushed for consideration of online education. I'd been studying the work of professors in Pennsylvania and Idaho who were developing online classes at the University of Pennsylvania and Boise State University. BSU had even taken a proposal to the State Board of Education for a Masters Degree Program in Historical Geography. It was being considered because of the distances involved for the state's teachers who had to deal with the distances between their small communities and Boise. When I made my pitch, Cincinnati Bible Seminary rebuffed it. (I was thankful they revived it sometime later, but their approach is still quite parochial.)
In my view, our 44 schools are a drain on the brotherhood's financial resources. In an era when the population is expanding exponentially worldwide we can no longer enjoy the luxury (if we ever could) of sopping up resources that could be used to take the Gospel to a lost world.
To reverse this trend, several things need to happen:
- Our Colleges and Universities need to start thinking outside the box. I don't know where he got it, but Bill Lown once said, "Education occurs when you have a student on one end of a log and Mark Hopkins on the other." For most of the studies necessary for ministry traning, our schools do not need the elaborate facilities with multimillion dollar chapels, administration facilities, and classrooms. They need prepared men and women who are excellent teachers and the technology to get them to the student. A raft of servers connected to T1 lines would be much less expensive than magnificent campuses. For eye-to-eye educaton, brief on-location seminars could be held. These seminars could be held in churches, rented facilities, or in facilities requiring less outlay than an entire campus.
- Schools need to recognize their job is to education, not build buildings. Furthermore, the schools must realize their task is to prepare a ministry. We need Christians prepared in a Christian worldview, but I learned while teaching at Malone College that just because a school calls itself a Christian College (Malone was a Friends school) does not mean they hold to a Christian worldview. I discovered that Malone faculty refused to support a Creationist Program offered in our church because "they didn't want to get involved." The real reason: The would lose money because some worldly students would not take courses on their campus.
- Our churches need to take seriously their responsibility to train up a ministry from within. The early church had no Bible Colleges unless you want to call the Alexandrian catechetical schools Bible Colleges. The local church raised up elders and bishops from within. Some of our megachurches are concerned only with making consumers, not making disciples. As a result, just as in Canton, proposals for in-depth training are rebuffed.
- In addition to working together to provide quality education online (and in other innovative ways), some of our schools could continue to exist as resource centers providing leadership for seminars, visiting lectures, and other special programs not designed as degree curriculum.
I recognize that traditional campus education will probably always be part of our tradition. I do think, however, that 44 schools, many of which are not effective, are way too many. Online education and innovative thinking could increase educational opportunity for countless individuals worldwide who currently could not or would not consider further education because it is too expensive, demands separation from their families, a loss of personal income, and more.
Little of what I've suggested will happen though. Why do I sound so pessimistic? Simply because experience tells me that existing schools protect themselves and their incomes and see themselves, whether they admit it or not, in competition with other schools for support and for students. It won't happen because there are too many presidents, deans, and faculty members whose jobs are on the line. Those beautiful buildings on multimillion dollar campuses are far more important than whether or not a student really gets a quality education.