Higher education is an indispensable element of a free and prosperous society. Colleges and universities exist to facilitate the exchange of ideas, create new knowledge, and prepare students for productive lives. When these purposes are not fulfilled, higher education must be held accountable.
Calls for reform, however, should be well considered—otherwise, they may create unintended consequences that undermine their ultimate goals.
Such is the case with recent calls to defund colleges and universities, either through re-allocation of tax dollars or re-examination of tax-exempt status. Critics argue that the American system of higher education does not provide opportunities or spaces open to conservative viewpoints or opinions, and as a result, these perspectives are silenced, if not summarily dismissed. Thus, the argument goes, institutions that do not provide sufficient viewpoint diversity should not receive federal support.
While these proposals raise larger questions regarding the appropriateness and mechanics of the federal government assessing the viewpoint diversity of America’s colleges and universities, let’s examine how such an approach might affect people of faith, a constituency often viewed as harmed by the academy’s liberal slant.
Consider the implications of such a plan for the one-in-five degree-granting institutions in the U.S. that claim a religious affiliation.
If viewpoint diversity were to become the new criterion for federal funding of higher education, policymakers would surely argue that it must be applied equally to all institutions, regardless of type. What would this mean for religious institutions like the 140 members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), a group devoted to integrating faith and learning throughout the college curriculum and committed to hiring only professing Christians as full-time faculty?
Depending on its definition and application, a federal standard for viewpoint diversity could be used to defund Christian colleges. Each of these institutions is currently tax-exempt and receives resources from the federal government in the form of financial aid packages, such as Pell grants, scholarships, and federally-subsidized and unsubsidized student loans. Already facing significant financial challenges, Christian colleges depend on tuition dollars and charitable contributions to operate. Increasing their tax burden and eliminating federal student aid would force many to close their doors.
Far more would be lost than a relatively small segment of American higher education.
Faculty at Christian colleges and universities, whose teaching and scholarship contribute to viewpoint diversity in the academy writ large, would find themselves unemployed and without an intellectual home. Christian higher education nurtures the faith-informed instructional approach of academics who have dedicated their professional lives to considering the implications of Christianity for every area of human endeavor. Not only would this unique form of teaching be threatened by Christian college closure, but so too would be these scholars’ contributions to pressing social concerns such as ecosystem management, bioethics, artificial intelligence, and poverty alleviation.
In addition, the Christian perspective would be less frequently represented in public life. As a point of remarkable distinction, Christian colleges help students develop and defend faith-based frameworks for making meaning – not only of historical and theoretical facts and figures – but of contemporary issues as well. What makes us truly human? What does it mean to live a good life? How should we balance individual rights and collective responsibilities? Within the Christian college, questions like these are addressed from a distinctively theological point of view, as students are explicitly asked to construct and defend positions based on Biblical perspectives and apply them to the pressing issues of our time. Defunding higher education would diminish the Christian-educated voice in society and decrease its representation within a range of industry sectors, from business to education to law.
Finally, local churches and communities would lose access to vital social, cultural, and economic resources. The CCCU membership as a whole generates nearly $26 billion in operations and capital investments annually, providing significant economic investment in communities across the U.S. About a quarter of these colleges and universities are located in small towns throughout rural America, serving as anchor institutions that provide economic stability and opportunity to under-resourced areas. The religious mission of these institutions fosters an emphasis on being good neighbors, regularly expressed through community service and resource sharing. Losing a Christian college would be devastating to these communities and would further intensify existing geographical disparities.
American higher education must respond to increasing public concerns regarding college costs, student outcomes, and viewpoint diversity. But reforms must be carefully crafted to minimize unexpected—and undesired—effects. To that end, let’s set aside reactionary proposals that do more to exacerbate existing divides in favor of the open and reasoned debate that embodies the academy’s highest ideals.