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Pushing back against the pressure to conform

Religious schools help higher education navigate against conformity.

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

For decades, higher education institutions have endured various pressures to conform to a narrow conceptualization of an ideal college or university. We worry about this pressure to conform and what it means for colleges with special missions. Many religious colleges and universities have successfully navigated aspects of the conformity crisis and we think there are lessons for the rest of higher education in their experience.

In January 1918, amid numerous domestic and global challenges including the First World War, the American Council on Education (ACE) was established to help coordinate the considerable power of American higher education for the benefit of learners from all corners of the country and for the general welfare of the nation.

Established first as the Emergency Council on Education, ACE quickly grew to include dozens of colleges and universities. More than a hundred years later, after having coordinated or shaped countless national initiatives including the creation of the General Education Development test (GED), the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act, ACE is home to more than 1,700 colleges, universities and higher education associations. 

While the specific challenges America’s colleges and universities have been asked to address may have changed in the century since ACE was established, a central principle of the ACE theory of change is that the power of American higher education rests in the diversity of its colleges and universities. This is true of their participants and of the institutions themselves. There are many different types of learners participating in higher education. And there are many different types of colleges and universities. This diversity of learners and institutions leads to collective works that ultimately facilitate progress for individuals, families, communities and our nation as a whole. 

The reality of this promise drew both of us to ACE after our respective careers in the field. One of us, Davis, joined ACE after serving for years as a campus student services leader. The other, Mitchell, served as dean, college president, and, for a time, the senior higher education officer in the United States Department of Education.

Increasingly, we are worried that the evolution of higher education, as an industry, is less welcoming of new, more diverse models and less supportive of the continued evolution of even existing models. We are worried about the increasing pressures to conform to a single model or a few models that are not representative of the diversity of learner needs and institution missions that exist. This means that over time, rather than seeing growth in the diversity and the variety of colleges and universities, we could start seeing more and more colleges that look identical to one another. While scholars and experts may disagree about how widespread pressures to conform are and whether they are bad for the sector, few disagree that they are real. 

We believe that the pressures of conformity that afflict higher education broadly were experienced by religious colleges and universities much earlier than many other institutions. An example of an early pressure to conform is found in Andrew Carnegie’s insistence that only secular institutions could participate in an innovative professors’ pension fund he established. That fund grew to become TIAA and now earnestly serves all types of institutions, irrespective of their religious, public or private status. However, before this inclusive pivot was adopted, a significant number of small religiously affiliated institutions severed ties with the churches who founded them so that they could participate in the fund. 

Higher education, as an industry, is less welcoming of new, more diverse models and less supportive of the continued evolution of even existing models.

While the early decades of the 20th century saw a reduction in the number of religious colleges and universities, a critical mass remained. Today, there are about 900 religious colleges and universities distributed across the country, many of which are members of ACE or members of associations who are represented within ACE. All of them contribute to the institutional diversity that empowers American higher education.

What remains of religious colleges and universities is anything but a monolith. This subset of American higher education is comprised of very small liberal arts colleges, very large research universities, and everything in between. Some are online intensive. Others are work colleges. Many focus on serving underrepresented and minority communities. There are religious institutions that focus on performing arts and religious colleges that focus on theology. Sometimes these diverse commitments are found at the same institution. 

From Rose Bowls to rowing regattas, religious colleges and universities show up in almost every corner of American higher education. At their best, they show up in ways that represent their authentic identities. This is where a lesson for the whole of higher education can be found. Despite pressures to conform, including decades of pressure to secularize, many religious colleges and universities have remained committed to their founding identities. Many have modernized around those identities. The result is a heterogeneous mixture of institutions linked by a common design attribute — a formal tie to a church or a religious community. 

Not surprisingly, the beneficiaries are often students themselves. In a world where more than half of those who start college never complete, religious colleges and universities stand out in their ability to engage students. According to the 2020 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings, 7 of the top 10 institutions recognized nationally for student engagement were religious. Separately, other reports demonstrate that religious colleges and universities often have higher than average graduation rates and lower than average costs of attendance.

With this background, ACE is pleased to see, and in some instances formally support, religious universities collaborating to help each other embrace the unique value their identities stand to offer students and the sector as a whole. The message within these collaborations seems to be that religious schools should look to their identities as a source of inspiration for charting new paths and the creation of new value propositions in the face of strong pressures to conform. We believe that this presents a powerful statement to the rest of the sector.

We actively recognize that conformity is just one of many challenges facing higher education. There are many other challenges that, like conformity, were experienced early by religious colleges and universities before being experienced by the sector as a whole. These include financial pressures, erosion of public trust and confidence, tendencies towards elitism, confusion and tension around the complexities of academic freedom, and assorted matters relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.

In each instance, religious institutions have or can look to their distinctive missions to find unique and meaningful solutions to these challenges. In this regard, the promise that religious colleges and universities can help the whole of higher education by adhering to the best versions of their authentic identity is not to be dismissed.

It is possible, and indeed likely, that the whole of higher education can look to the best of religious higher education for inspiration in charting new and meaningful paths. We even call upon religious universities, some of whom are gifted with considerable resources, to help less wealthy special mission colleges and universities, especially those that serve vulnerable and underserved learners, in their own efforts to resist pressures to conform. In this way, religious universities can not only serve as clear examples of what it means to be mission driven but can also empower more institutions to do the same.

Ted Mitchell is the president of the American Council of Education (ACE). Gailda Davis is the assistant vice president and executive director of ACE Connect.

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