Dordt College News

From the president

May 9, 2009

Who gets to decide?

So who gets to decide? There are about 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. About one-quarter of those are paid for by your friends and neighbors through their taxes. They don’t have a choice as to whether they are going to contribute; they just get the tax bill in the mail. So, while the cost of education at those college and universities is probably more than at private alternatives, you won’t have to pay most of the bill yourself because folks from across the country have chipped in to help. They really didn’t have a choice. But you do.

The other three-quarters of colleges and universities are private. Of those, approximately 300 are owned by corporations looking to make a profit. Your friends and neighbors may own stock in those companies, so if you attend those schools, you’ll be doing them a favor as they pocket some of the tuition you’ve paid (or received by grants and loans from other taxpayers through the government). Attending one of the growing number of these for-profit colleges is another choice.

Then there are the independent private colleges, more than 900 of which have some sort of religious background—although some of them don’t profess to pay much attention to that religious tradition any longer. As they hire professors, build their curriculum, and design student life policies, they are often careful not to give priority to any doctrine, creed, or moral standard.  These schools raise their own funds through donations, tuition, and fees, and they pour it all back into building up their educational infrastructure. If you attend one of these colleges, many people will be helping you through special gifts to the college, scholarships, and financial aid. The government also may ask taxpayers to help out somewhat as well, depending on your financial need. And you’ll certainly have to invest your own resources, either from what you’ve saved up, what you can earn while going to college, or by paying back some loans after you graduate and start your profession. It usually takes effort, but it’s a third choice.

Finally, among those independent private colleges there may be 150 to 200 that claim to take seriously their Christian faith commitment. They hire only professing Christians as full-time faculty. Most of them will establish some code of conduct for student life. Many of them will encourage praise gatherings and spiritual growth groups.  These colleges generally don’t attract the support of major corporations or foundations because much of society considers them to be “narrow-minded.” So apart from alumni who want to help students enjoy what they experienced at the college and local friends and supporters who believe in the Christian mission of the college, you’ll be largely left to pay for this type of education by yourself. Fortunately, these colleges get good at cutting costs so that their tuition is competitive with that of other colleges and universities. If you make this choice, you’ll do so because you want a Christian environment, a biblical perspective in your classes, godly mentors, and fellow students to encourage your growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

But let’s return to my original question. After spending the past thirteen years in Christian higher education leadership, I wonder how many seventeen- or eighteen-year-olds are ready to make that kind of choice on their own? For a typical teenager, whose life choices have consisted of trying to decide whether to try out for the junior varsity basketball team or whether to take a third year of high school Spanish, choosing among these types of colleges might be a little more than we have a right to expect of them. 

For those of us who think it’s important to consider a college that is explicitly based on the Reformed philosophy of education that requires that every course, every class, every residence life event, and every athletic contest be permeated “with the spirit and teaching of Christianity,” as one of Dordt College’s founding documents puts it, it hardly seems realistic to expect high school graduates to find their way to that sort of college all on their own.

I hope parents remain intimately involved in helping their children make this choice. Pastors, youth leaders, high school teachers, guidance counselors, grandparents, aunts, uncles, employers, and friends should weigh in as well. The choice eighteen-year-olds make as they head off to college sets a course for the rest of their lives. We shouldn’t expect them to make it all on their own.

Just giving advice isn’t quite enough, either. Helping with the cost is a great encouragement. Big corporations and foundations aren’t going to help much. The government is going to be pretty careful about how much it assists at these schools. And very few mega-donors are going to jump in. It’s up to folks like us to help encourage the decision that will make a life of difference for the student—and an eternity of difference to God’s kingdom. 

In the end, it still is a choice, but the question each of us should answer is “Who makes—and helps God’s children make—that choice?”


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