Making the Grade
The (struggling) economics and governance of Adventist education
Much has been written recently about the struggles of Adventist schools. This struggle is not limited to North America, or to one type or level of school. We regularly hear of schools that are closed (remember, most recently, Mount Vernon Academy) or in danger of closing. There are conversations, prayers, and much hand-wringing, but our fundamental process for operating schools has not changed—at least not in my lifetime.
What’s happening? Why are these schools struggling? What can we do to improve our schools and make them successful? These are questions I’ve asked myself for some time. As a business professor and the financial administrator of an Adventist school, for me these questions are not merely academic, but practical and pressing concerns. Our schools are an integral part of our God-given mission. If they fail, we are not delivering on what God has asked us to do.
In the “normal” Adventist model the local church runs elementary schools; academies are run by the conference; and union conferences run colleges and universities. Education today is far more complex than it was 100 years ago. The amount of paperwork needed to run any school is significantly higher, thanks to governments and accrediting associations. Regulations reduce the flexibility that schools at all levels used to have. The costs of laboratories (science, computers, etc.) have outpaced inflation. Many expenses are on a per-school basis, rather than on a per-student basis.
Other circumstances have also changed. Families used to have many children. Today there are often only one or two. We have seen a shift from rural to urban societies. In my grandparents’ generation, a secondary school diploma ensured employment for life. A college degree was for the elite. For my children today to remain employed in a professional capacity, they will likely be required to earn a graduate degree.
Distance is no longer the barrier it used to be. When Adventist schools started, traveling 100 miles a day was a significant journey. Today we fly 2,000 miles without letting it interfere with our sleep schedule.
Technology has also changed. Postal mail across country took weeks. Now, with cell phones and the Internet, communication at a distance is not an issue (even internationally). Physical presence is no longer the critical element it used to be.
Why Are Our Schools Struggling?
Here are some crucial factors I have identified as I have puzzled over this problem for the past few years.
Size. In today’s environment, with major governmental and accreditation requirements, it is very difficult to meet these requirements without allocating additional personnel, infrastructure, and finances. Because of the nature of the requirements, the necessary work is not directly proportional to the size of the institution. An academy with 100 students and one with 500 students must complete the same reports. The cost per student of the smaller school is therefore higher. Higher costs make it more difficult for parents to afford (or justify) the cost of Adventist education.
Another size issue involves the necessary laboratories (particularly for academies and colleges/universities). The facilities needed for computer or chemistry labs are not different if you have one group of 25 students or six groups of 25 students. Small is nice but expensive. Not long ago I asked about the size of the Spanish program at one university. I was told that they averaged only two graduates per year, and that there were (at that time) six or seven Spanish majors offered across all Adventist universities in the United States, graduating fewer than 15 students per year. Is this affordable?
Demographics. Today’s church is rapidly becoming an urban church. In an urban context we have multiple congregations within a small radius, yet the elementary school typically belongs to a single church. That church has to budget for it, and hope and pray that enough students will come to make the budget work. In a city, day academies spring up to serve local members, enabling them to attend an Adventist school. This reduces the pool of students for the conference boarding academy, creating more economic pressure.
People no longer stay in the area where they were raised. In the nineteenth century many people lived and died within 50 miles of their birthplace. Today it is common to live on the other end of the country. The more educated a person is, the less likely they are to remain where they grew up.
Tradition. Generally, we don’t like change. We fight to keep what we’ve always had. During the past decade one conference in the U.S. with a struggling boarding academy (which they considered closing) received a multimillion-dollar offer to purchase the land and the buildings of the academy, located in a rural setting. The proposal was to sell the academy and use the proceeds to clear the school’s debt, then invest the remainder as an endowment to fund students from that conference to study at nearby boarding academies.
The proposal was defeated, and the academy remained open for another two or three years. It is now closed, and the land was sold for 30 percent of the original offer. The new payment had to cover not only the earlier debt but also the additional debt from running the institution at a loss for the extra time the school operated, as well as the time that the institution was not used before it was sold. The remaining endowment (after clearing debts) is less than 15 percent of what it would have been, severely limiting the assistance the conference can provide.
The neighboring academies (four of them) cannot therefore receive the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the endowment would have provided every year, nor the additional amounts that parents would have contributed! We don’t like moving our schools, even when it makes economic sense. Even Ellen White saw this. The move of Healdsburg College (which she had been involved in setting up) to Angwin as Pacific Union College in 1909 had her full support. The church sold the land in Healdsburg and used the proceeds to purchase the land they currently own. Even though she had advised the church to build in Healdsburg at first, when times changed, she advocated changing the location.
Identity. We need to recognize that the largest single source for funding education is tuition, which comes mainly from students’ parents. In today’s environment parents are concerned with getting value for the money they spend on their children’s education. Adventist education is not cheap, so parents ask themselves: “What value am I getting for what I spend?”
They look at public education as well as other private schools. From marketing we know that consumers make choices on price, product, promotion, and place. Adventist education is not normally the cheapest; it is often not well marketed; the location of our schools is often not the most convenient. Therefore, what’s the selling point? It has to be product. If the “product” is not perceived as being significantly different from the alternatives, why should parents pay money plus have the inconvenience of the location?
How is our “product” different? Can it be different if our faculty and employees are non-Adventists, or have not received a solid Adventist education? Do we have a program that requires new faculty (Adventist or not) to have training in Adventist beliefs and educational philosophy? Do we require a statement of belief and practice from our employees, as many other faith-based schools (at all levels) do? I know that I have not signed a single such statement in my entire work experience, all of which has been spent in Adventist schools. We have plenty of opportunity to have a distinctive product, but we often don’t use it. If something does not contribute to the mission of the church, it becomes a distraction and, according to business theory, should be disposed of. Do our schools truly contribute to that mission? What can we do to improve on that contribution?
Some Possible Solutions
We live in a vastly different world than we did when Adventist education began. In reality, we live in a time of rapid changes, and it’s time to act creatively and decisively if Adventist education is to continue to be a vibrant contributor in fulfilling the mission God has given us. I suggest the following areas be addressed:
Governance. Considering today’s reality, it’s time for elementary schools to be attached to the local conference. The ability to coordinate between churches and districts, and to coordinate the governmental requirements, creates significant efficiencies. Textbook purchasing can be coordinated, and in some cases the sharing of specialized faculty (music, computers, art) could be advantageous both from financial and quality perspectives.
At the secondary school level, schools should be attached to union conferences. The decision then on how best to serve the members who don’t have access to day academies (or would prefer their child to attend a boarding school) can be done for a larger region. Efficiencies in supervision from coordinating across many secondary schools include the ability to share in purchasing and the potential (using technology) to share faculty so that specialized courses, particularly in key subjects such as mathematics and sciences, can be shared. This increases the system’s capacity to offer quality teaching without significantly increasing costs, making the product more attractive.
Colleges and universities need to be attached to the division. Looking across the fence at the Mormon Church in North America, it’s plain that they have focused all their efforts on Brigham Young University, thus creating a world-class school.
I would not argue that we should close all of our institutions and take them to one location. Rather, I would suggest that the model of the University of Wisconsin System, with its multiple campuses, could be used, where transfer between campuses is seamless. * Just imagine the Adventist University of North America, with 13 campuses. Yes, it’s painful to think of giving up control (and perhaps even names). But such a model would enable a student to start on one campus and move to complete at another campus without fear of the dreaded “transfer credit” problems. It enables coordination of offerings so that class sizes are maintained at reasonable levels to make programs more affordable. Certain campuses could specialize in specific areas, while high-volume degrees could be offered at all locations. Students who wish to stay closer to home might be able to study two years in Berrien Springs (Andrews University), and then move to Loma Linda or Walla Walla to complete their studies.
Identity. I’ve worked in Adventist education for more than 30 years. I’ve been privileged to travel the world and see Adventist schools in almost all regions of the church. As I look at schools of every level, I’ve seen one consistent thing: With very few exceptions, whenever I see schools in systemic trouble (I’m not talking about the momentary crisis), I’ve seen schools that are not following the clear instructions we have from the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. Even non-Adventist leaders recognize the Adventist philosophy of education as very sound, yet we tend to forget it. We often sacrifice our Adventist philosophy on the altar of financial expediency, or we try to compete with the “world” rather than being a distinctive light upon the hill. We cannot expect God to bless us when we are doing things that are contrary to explicit instructions we have been given.
I know it sounds simplistic to say that with addressing the governance and identity issues, we will have “solved” the problem. However, if we agree that the core issues are size, demographics, tradition, and identity, we will be much further down the road to resolving these issues than we are under the current model. It will not be easy for organizations to give up control of what they have “owned,” but it’s not impossible. Financially, if each organization continues to contribute the same amount to the operations of the schools, the school’s finances will improve rapidly, because of efficiencies of being part of a larger system. As part of a more cohesive system, the issues that are driven by size, demographics, and tradition should be able to be overcome.
But without a clear Adventist identity, what is the purpose of having a school? How does it support the mission of the church? Let’s not lose our focus. The purpose of Adventist education is not to provide employment for members, or merely a protected haven where parents can have their kids in a “safe” environment for a bit longer. Anything and everything we do must be focused on preparing those around us for the Second Advent. If we do not agree on and work toward this goal, our investment may be in vain.
*University of Wisconsin System, “UW Colleges’ Transfer Guides” (2015), https://www.wisconsin.edu/transfer/guides/, accessed May 15, 2015.
Ron Vyhmeister, Ph.D., served as deputy vice-chancellor for financial administration at the Adventist University of Africa while writing this article. He and his wife, Shawna, have just moved to Middle East University in Lebanon, where he will serve as academic dean.