Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.

There is nothing new about critiquing American higher education. After all, it was 1908 when Abraham Flexner first published his matter-of-fact titled book “The American College: A Criticism.” Ever since, there’s been a long line of would-be reformers, skeptics and staunch defenders of the academy.

But in recent years the conversation has become more urgent. Rising tuition, student loans and questions about college’s effectiveness have drawn public scrutiny. In this context, Sen. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, who is also a former university president, recently underscored the paradox that “American higher education is the envy of the world, and it’s also failing our students on a massive scale.” He asks, “How can both be true simultaneously?”

Even while major American research institutions serve a laudable function in society, students are not completing college at acceptable rates, particularly lower-income students. For example, in its 2022 study, the Pell Institute showed that the six-year bachelor’s attainment rate for students in the top income quartile was just under 60 percent.

Alarmingly, for students in the bottom income quartile that percentage drops to just 15 percent. Despite these low completion rates, both tuition and funding costs continue to climb. In the decade preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, college costs outpaced inflation by 19 percent at private nonprofit institutions and 28 percent at public ones, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The College Board estimates that the average cost of attendance (tuition, housing, books and fees) was over $27,000 for in-state public universities and nearly $55,000 for private

universities. Mind you, those figures are not the total cost of earning a degree, but the estimated cost of attending one year of college. This cost and completion crisis is not only impacting students. Despite the continued increase in tuition, more and more universities are struggling financially. Even with admirable attempts by many employees, donors and legislators, institutional closures have climbed. Since 2016, 75 American colleges and universities have closed. Beyond closures, the extended financial pressures threaten to substantially, and in some cases irreversibly, alter their founding missions or their essential identities.

Americans need to get creative in solving these problems, and that means looking for models — however experimental — that deliver educational results while reducing costs. In this regard, some religious-based institutions are forging a surprising path.

Americans need to get creative in solving these problems, and that means looking for models — however experimental — that deliver educational results while reducing costs.

In contemporary America, there is no shortage of outstanding academic talent. Professors are strenuously vetted and selected at the time of initial employment; a single opening in the faculty can draw dozens of applicants. Newly hired assistant professors are likely to teach mainly lower-division courses with high enrollments. A process of weeding begins immediately. Over the years, those faculty members deemed highly competent can move up a ladder that, ideally, ends with full professorship and a tenure agreement that is all but ironclad.

However, the many purposes and preferences of the university community can produce mixed motives and inefficiencies. Factors limiting completion may include inadequate registration counseling and already full classes, making it hard for students to get into the courses needed to advance according to their graduation plans. That pressure can spill over onto beleaguered professors carrying high course loads and class enrollments.

Ironically, even as course loads increase, incentives often focus away from students and are redirected at faculty research. These forces are moving in different directions, putting further pressures on students, especially students who struggle.

Also, the typical institutions’ salaries vary vastly, based on academic discipline. A full professor of English or history, for example, might make a fraction of the compensation given to a professor of mechanical engineering, computer science, accounting or business management. The academic job market is demand driven. Salary equity can be a serious sore point for many.

Collectively, higher education also has another two-pronged problem of its own making. One of those is a dearth of pressure to economize. Tuition, for example, rarely decreases. Only in unusually turbulent economic times is a tuition freeze considered, and not for long.

Then, following such an unusual down financial year, there is strong, broad-based sentiment to make up the lost revenues. The higher education community tends to move in concert, not only returning to inflationary tuition increases, but also adding offsets to at least partially compensate for the lean years.

In addition, economizing among universities and colleges, in terms of tuition rates, is rare. Also, there are few institutional rewards for lowering operating costs via economizing or innovating. To the contrary, constructing new buildings and increasing tuition rates can be interpreted as a signal of increased prestige and value.

But, as Sasse has warned, business as usual in higher education is leaving too many students behind. Those students include both high school graduates who don’t enroll in higher education as well as college students who drop out before earning a credential, having educational debts to pay.

Religious schools have a unique set of advantages in addressing the cost-and-completion crisis facing American education. First, having a religious mission offers a different primary identity for faculty and administrators that gives institutions the autonomy to think differently from traditional academic models and more deliberately focus on the needs of their student communities. For example, there is tremendous scholarly and peer pressure on faculty to follow common university models that elevate faculty research over student teaching. Religious purpose offers a chance to build a different faculty identity focused on elevating student needs, including more focused mentoring and teaching incentives.

Second, spiritual identity opens up a second resource religious schools can draw on in helping students succeed. Most religious schools have a built-in pastoral mission. This deeper purpose opens opportunities to align faculty priorities around mentoring and ministering to student needs. In fact, when done well, this can become part of the formal faculty contract at religious institutions. Moreover, the development of the “whole person” is directly tied to the mission of many religious schools. Many students who pause their university experience do so for nonacademic reasons — financial struggles, social insecurity, personal anxiety or lack of confidence. By focusing on the whole person, faculty and academic mentors have unique opportunities to draw on spiritual identity and heaven’s direction in helping students work through these challenges.

A third resource religious schools can draw on is a sense of sacrifice and community that strengthens the institution beyond the summation of a broad group of individual contracts. In an academic world where many faculty move from institution to institution based on the best financial offer or most attractive terms of individual employment, religious universities have the opportunity to create consistent community through shared identity, values, common language and shared purpose.

The potential to draw on religious identity in such a systemic way may sound overly hopeful or even naïve. But religious universities are, in fact, using their religious identity not only to strengthen spiritual mission but to help drive innovation, including efforts to increase completion and lower costs. My evidence is very close to home, in rural Idaho at the institution I now lead, Brigham Young University-Idaho.

In the spring of 2000, faced with growing numbers of students hoping for a faith-based education in the Latter-day Saint community, Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called my father, Henry B. “Hal” Eyring, then the church’s commissioner of education, into his office. The 90-year-old church leader wasted no time. “Hal,” he said, “Couldn’t we serve more students at lower cost by making Ricks College a university? What problems do you see?”

Ricks was a two-year college in a small Mormon pioneer-founded town known for hard, windy winters and down-to-earth folks. Eyring, who holds a doctoral degree from Harvard and received tenure at Stanford, hesitated to reply. His mind raced from one deal-breaking objection to another.

Four-year status would mean a near-doubling of student enrollment, requiring concomitant increases in faculty and physical facilities. Also, current professors lacking advanced degrees would need to seek further higher education, and with those credentials would come higher salaries. It also seemed the campus would require a near-doubling of the physical facilities.

Eyring knew President Hinckley well enough to pull no punches. Having long experience with universities, he felt obligated to warn against the all-but-inevitable tendency of a new university to become an institution more expensive, per capita, than anything ever imagined as a community college.

With all the understatement Eyring could muster, he said, “It will cost you more.” But President Hinckley was ahead of his junior colleague. “It will cost less.” He went on to outline what’s proven to be a bold innovation here in Rexburg, Idaho.

Economizing among universities and colleges, in terms of tuition rates, is rare. Also, there are few institutional rewards for lowering operating costs via economizing or innovating.

Though the new four-year college would bear the name Brigham Young University — with a hyphen followed by “Idaho” — President Hinckley was confident that the administration and faculty colleagues could create a school embodying the most essential aspects of higher education while simultaneously retaining the Ricks College tradition of student-focused teaching in a gospel context.

The campus would operate on a year-round basis, for starters, taking advantage of calendaring that would allow the university to reach many more students while using the same physical footprint. Today students are accepted into one of three tracks — fall/winter, winter/spring or spring/summer — essentially adding an additional 50 percent capacity while leveraging the existing classroom facilities. The year-round calendar could only happen because President Hinckley also announced the faculty would be teaching-oriented: “Effective teaching and advising would continue to be the primary responsibilities of its faculty, who are committed to academic excellence.”

Not only did this mean that research would be de-emphasized in faculty hiring and promotion, but that the university would focus on bachelor’s degrees and not expand into graduate programs. Additionally, intercollegiate athletic programs would be phased out, in favor of substantial growth in intramural sports.

President Hinckley leaned into the school’s religious governance, but he also leaned into the school’s religious identity to build a student-centered culture that simultaneously lowered costs and increased student outcomes. Despite near open enrollment, BYU-Idaho’s graduation rate in 2021 was over 67 percent, well above the national average of 57 percent. Moreover, the year-round calendar and teaching-focused faculty contract have allowed the school to keep student tuition low and student engagement high. The average class size at BYU-Idaho is barely over 30 students, nearly half the size of most public universities, despite annual campus enrollment that is approaching 40,000 students per year. From 2000 to 2022, BYU-Idaho has more than tripled its enrollment while total costs have grown at or below inflation. This phenomenon has happened because the university has remained disciplined to the innovations. BYU-Idaho is drawing on its unique religious identity to help overcome the cost and completion challenges so prevalent in today’s higher education environment, but it’s not alone.

As American higher education searches for ways to solve the pain points that have led to the crises of lower graduation rates and rising debt, maybe rural Idaho and other innovators in religious higher education are a good place to start looking.

Henry J. Eyring is the president of BYU-Idaho.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.