There is a new generation of leadership at the helm of the five Reformed Christian undergraduate colleges that receive ministry shares or significant support from the Christian Reformed Church. Calvin College, Dordt College, Trinity Christian College, The King’s University, and Redeemer University College all have deep roots in the CRC. And all five institutions are under new leadership within the past five years.
The CRC has historically placed a premium on Christian education from elementary schools to undergraduate and post-graduate levels, a commitment rooted in the deep belief that God calls humans to be agents for Christ-centered renewal in all areas of life.
The presidents of the undergraduate colleges all agree that, as a group, their five schools are fulfilling their mandate to prepare students academically and spiritually to be those agents of renewal. They see their alumni becoming leaders in their churches, communities, and professions.
Melanie Humphreys, in her second year as president of The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, said the quality of the students and alumni and the difference they are making in the world is the proof of the pudding. Michael Le Roy, president of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., for almost three years, said what he hears from most alumni is that “Calvin ‘taught me to think well through the lens of faith.’”
Doing More Together
The presidents also agree that there are things they could be doing better. When the schools were started, it was in large part to have distinctively Reformed Christian higher education located geographically near communities where there were high concentrations of CRC families. “It made sense [for us] to have all the same kind of majors,” said Erik Hoekstra, president of Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, for three years. But now that all the schools draw students nationally and internationally, that may not make as much sense.
Hoekstra sees collaboration as one of the ways to provide more of the programming students are seeking. “None of us are doing much to help students work for Christ-centered renewal in, for example, manufacturing. None of us have a major in that,” he said. “How are we claiming that square inch?” He wonders whether the schools should consider diverse fields but perhaps with some differentiation based on qualifications or geography.
Liz Rudenga, who was appointed interim president at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill., six months ago, said she would like to see more of that collaboration. “In one sense we are competitors, but how do we share with each other in meeting our mission?” she asked.
Le Roy said they also need to find ways to share the gift of Christian higher education with a wider audience. “We are reaching out to Christian young people from a variety of faith traditions,” he said. “We have to do that in a language that invites people in while remaining distinctly Reformed and Christian. It’s a challenge and an opportunity.”
All of the schools face financial pressures to varying degrees. They face shrinking demographics: smaller families, fewer young people in the church, and fewer young adults seeking a liberal arts education. “All of our colleges are tuition dependent,” said Rudenga. “We need enrollment, and enrollment in higher education [in the U.S.] peaked in 2011.” It’s basic supply and demand, concurred Hoekstra. “There are just too many colleges in America chasing too few students.”
Several of the schools also fight a perception that they are too expensive, when in fact they are only marginally more expensive than comparable options.
But there is also a deeper question about cost. “The demands for education have become somewhat more utilitarian,” said Hubert Krygsman of Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. “The first question parents ask is, ‘What job can my son or daughter get with a Redeemer degree?’” Rudenga hears that too. “Parents and students are looking for . . . increased job opportunities, increased income.”
In answer to which all the colleges can point to compelling statistics. For example, Dordt has a 98 percent employment rate for its students six months after graduation. Calvin students are more likely to complete their degrees and do it faster than they would at a public university. In Alberta, where only 26 percent of applicants to medical school are accepted, the medical school acceptance rate for King’s students is 90 percent.
The schools can show they are worth the money economically, but they want parents and students to know it isn’t just about economic value. Krygsman asks students to “think about what your lifelong role will be as a parent, a member of a faith community, what kinds of organizations you want to work for and with, what kind of impact you want to make in life.” He said there is no better place to prepare for that than Redeemer or one of the other Christian colleges.
Rudenga echoed that. “It’s upfront investment in a lifelong commitment to follow God’s calling,” she said.
Partners in Success
To a person, the five presidents note that the generosity of donors in the CRC is essential to that mission of preparing students to be lifelong agents of change. “The Reformed community contributes to educational institutions like no other,” said Krygsman. “We couldn’t exist without that support.”
Le Roy has seen that generosity firsthand in the past couple of years as Calvin has faced a financial crisis due to a large debt. “The goodwill I encounter when I’m out is humbling and very positive,” he said.
But it isn’t just about financial support. Humphreys appreciates that Christian Reformed people are intellectually engaged. “They read, are thoughtful, and have the ability to engage with everything from social issues to theological issues,” she said.
That’s not to say there are not challenges associated with that relationship. All of them note that the hot-button issues in the church (age of the earth, homosexuality) are also felt at the schools. “We hear from the denomination loud and clear that it wants the college to be working on challenging and difficult issues and that that engagement needs to be well grounded in confessional commitments,” Le Roy said. “It wants us to be reassuring of our fidelity and courageous about doing that work. That’s challenging space.”
Krygsman said that the growing range of views on such issues puts institutions like theirs in the crosshairs. “It is very challenging for us to navigate between different views on things like homosexuality.”
The paradox is that while the CRC as a community has been so generous in its support of the schools, there is less loyalty to institutions in new generations. For example, Dordt has the highest percentage of its students coming from the CRC, but it has seen that drop by 20 percent over the past 10 years alone. “There is a lower level of commitment to Christian day school education and Christian higher education than there was 25 years ago,” said Hoekstra. He thinks pastors and parents haven’t been strong enough mentors in helping students make the choice for Christian education.
Le Roy echoes that. “I would like to see pastors and parishioners lean in on each other a little more to take the challenge of Christian higher education more seriously,” he said. “It used to be unthinkable [to go elsewhere]. These days, many view higher education as a commodity, that one university is just like another.”
Rudenga said she knows it sounds self-serving, that of course the college presidents want students to select one of the colleges most closely connected to the CRC. “It’s really said out of care for the church,” she said. “I think [Christian colleges] help with the future of the church.”
“I think the health of the denomination depends on having young people going to these institutions to return to these churches to serve, lead, and participate in the renewing vision of the church,” said Le Roy.
Krygsman agreed that the institutions and the church need to recognize the absolutely critical alliance of church, school, and family. “Young adults are making critical life decisions. Why not put them in an environment where they grow and deepen in their discipleship and discernment?”
Founded Enrollment* CRC**
Calvin College 1876 3,826 36%
Dordt College 1955 1,363 43%
Trinity Christian College 1959 997 24%
The King’s University 1979 715 17%
Redeemer University College 1982 763 28%
*Full time equivalent in undergraduate programs
** Percentage of students from a CRC