Education and the Promise of Religious Identity

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Education opens doors. It not only provides knowledge and skills but also offers opportunities for personal growth, social mobility, and civic engagement. Students who earn a college degree have the potential to double their lifetime earnings compared to those with only a high school degree. Furthermore, educational attainment can break cycles of intergenerational poverty, as college graduates are 3.5 times less likely to be in poverty than those who stop at high school graduation. The transformative impact of education on the lives of students is why so many dedicated professionals pursue educational careers.

However, the promise of education is in peril due to the interrelated crises of access, completion, and affordability. Many young people do not have access to education, with enrollment rates among 18- to 24-year-olds barely reaching 38 percent. This crisis of access is a national phenomenon that affects students from all racial backgrounds. Regardless of their race, white, Black, and Hispanic students all enroll at rates below 40 percent.

The completion statistics are even more concerning. Less than half of all college students complete a college degree, according to the Pell Institute. The data for students from the lowest income quartile is even more alarming, with less than 15% of low-income students who start college actually completing their degree.

In addition to low access and attainment rates, the cost of a degree has come under increased scrutiny. Over the past two decades, education costs have increased as rapidly as healthcare costs. This has led to a ballooning college debt of $1.6 trillion, with default rates highest where completion rates are lowest. This phenomenon, known as the “high debt, no degree” situation, further exacerbates the affordability crisis in education.

Despite these challenges, a growing number of educational leaders are finding innovative ways to overcome the crises of access, completion, and affordability. Professor Eric Bettinger at Stanford University has shown how mentoring programs can increase graduation rates, while Tristan Denley in the Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee state educational systems has validated the idea of a “momentum year” to improve retention. Educational leaders like President Michael Crow at Arizona State University and President Scott Pulsipher at Western Governors University are also innovating to lower costs and increase educational relevance.

Religious universities, too, can offer unique insights and contributions to these challenges. However, some media and policymakers fail to recognize the impact of religious identity in educational innovation. Religious purpose can serve as a wellspring of innovation in educational institutions.

For people of faith, educational attainment is often seen as a religious responsibility. Tapping into this motivation can help bring the needed confidence and hope required to access education. Hispanic educational communities, for example, access their shared Catholic identity to reach out to at-risk populations. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) draw on their Baptist or Methodist heritage to build connection and purpose with African American faith communities.

Religious identity can be a source of differential advantage in helping at-risk prospective college students find access to higher education. Fresno Pacific University, a member of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, offers the Samaritan Leadership Program, which provides mentoring and academic opportunities for undocumented students in California. This program allows students to serve their campus and local community while completing their academic requirements under the university’s Mennonite Brethren Church denomination.

Religious institutions also offer unique opportunities for strengthening college completion rates through their pastoral care. Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, describes how religious schools have a deeper connection with students through their “covenant” relationship, which goes beyond a transactional “consumer” relationship.

Religious identity can also have a strong correlation with graduation rates. Professor Ilana Horwitz at Tulane, in collaboration with Professor Eric Bettinger from Stanford, suggests that religious identity can draw on religious volunteerism to support student mentoring efforts. This network of pastoral care, rooted in religious identity, can provide additional support and motivation for students.

Religious purpose also brings a call to care for the poor. According to a 2018 study, one in three students attending a Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) school is first-generation, and 50 percent of students come from families making less than $50,000 annually. CCCU member schools offer various options to assist these students. For example, Spring Arbor University in Michigan has announced the Spring Arbor Cougar Commitment, which offers free tuition to prospective students with the highest levels of need. Similarly, Greenville University in Illinois offers the Illinois Allegiance, which provides opportunities for a private Christian liberal arts education to students in Illinois with the greatest need.

Religious identity can also lead to cost innovations. When BYU-Idaho was created, one of its religiously inspired directives was to make quality education affordable to many more students. The university designed a three-track calendar system that allowed them to serve 50 percent more students than traditional universities without raising proportional costs. Faculty at BYU-Idaho supported this teaching emphasis with direct religious oversight because they shared a spiritual commitment to make quality education more affordable.

In conclusion, religious colleges and universities have a unique role to play in addressing the nation’s educational crises and restoring the promise of education. By embracing their religious identity, these institutions tap into the motivation and support networks that can help at-risk students access and complete their education. Religious purpose can drive innovation, strengthen college completion rates, and provide cost-effective solutions. The courage to hold onto their religious identity is what makes faith-based universities such a unique national resource. As religious schools continue to embrace their ability to help students find spiritual meaning, they simultaneously support efforts to address the nation’s educational challenges.