Another One Bites the Dust

Tennessee Temple will probably not be the last fundamentalist institution of higher learning to go bust

“Most—maybe all—of the schools within historic fundamentalism are struggling for funding, students, or both. Some have managed to increase revenues by going to Internet-based education. Others have attempted to increase their constituency by appealing to the most conservative evangelicals. None of them, however, seems to be flourishing.”

 

Spurgeon. Pillsbury. Atlantic. Calvary. Northland. Now Tennessee Temple. These are all names of fundamentalist educational institutions that have closed their doors (through dissolution, merger, or “gifting” their campus to another entity) over the past decade or so. The most recent, Tennessee Temple, had been standing on wobbly legs for years. This week its board voted to shut the doors and to merge whatever is left of the school into Piedmont International University. Upon receiving word of the closing, one colleague remarked, “Another one bites the dust.”

Tennessee Temple will probably not be the last fundamentalist institution of higher learning to go bust. Most—maybe all—of the schools within historic fundamentalism are struggling for funding, students, or both. Some have managed to increase revenues by going to Internet-based education. Others have attempted to increase their constituency by appealing to the most conservative evangelicals. None of them, however, seems to be flourishing. The King James Only crowd likes to boast that schools like Pensacola and West Coast are thriving, and that may be true. These colleges, however, are not representative fundamentalist institutions, and their prosperity does not do anything to help normal fundamentalism.

As might be expected, voices on both sides are ready to offer explanations. Critics of fundamentalism have suggested that these schools are suffering from an inability to adapt to the present cultural situation, that they are paying the price for a grace-denying legalism, or that their own incompetence is simply catching up with them. Critics of change are quick to argue that these institutions have collapsed because they abandoned their historic commitments and alienated their constituencies. In effect, the former want to see aggiornamento, while the latter are calling for ressourcement. Both perspectives probably contain elements of the truth, though the reality is more complicated than either.

What is happening? Why are fundamentalist educations institutions closing at a rate of about one every two years? A comprehensive explanation must take account of many considerations, only a few of which can be mentioned here.

One is that all small schools (and fundamentalism has no large ones) are feeling pressure. For example, on the same day that Tennessee Temple announced its “merger,” Sweet Briar College also announced that it would be ceasing operations. Sweet Briar is a secular college. With a FTE enrollment of almost 700 and an endowment of over $80 million, it was in far better condition than most fundamentalist institutions. Nevertheless, its board believed that the school could not sustain itself in the future, and opted to close rather than to fight a prolonged battle for existence. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education estimates that around 250 other colleges or universities across the country are “vulnerable.” That equals five for every state in the Union—nearly all of which receive at least some government funding. Significantly, the forces that affected Sweet Briar also affect most fundamentalist institutions, most of which refuse to accept funding from the government.

Another consideration is that fundamentalists have been opening institutions as well as closing them. The number of little Bible colleges based in local churches has probably never been higher. The existence of these institutions (most of which lack credibility) tends to siphon students away from more mainstream and responsible schools. Also, schools that once offered only baccalaureate degrees have opened graduate programs. Some have gone on to open seminaries. Consequently, more institutions are fishing in the same pool, with the natural result that each institution attracts fewer students and donors. Not all can survive.

Furthermore, fundamentalist students have never had more options for post-secondary education. The stigma against secular schools has largely eroded, while the costs of going away to college have skyrocketed. More students are living at home and enrolling in community college—in some states, while they finish high school. Others are considering local universities or evangelical schools that would once have been proscribed.

The result is that churches are sending fewer of their young people to Christian schools. This problem is exacerbated by two factors. One is the widespread disintegration of Christian elementary and secondary schools. The second is the sharp decrease of interest in biblical education on the part of fundamentalist adolescents. Rising numbers seem eager to prosper in careers that a Bible curriculum simply will not advance. For more and more fundamentalist students, business trumps Bible as an educational choice.

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