Getting to 
(and beyond) 
the point: The future of Presbyterian 
higher education

The Big Picture

William Tennent probably never dreamed we would get to this point. The same could be said for John Witherspoon.

Tennent, some may recall, is considered by many to be the father of Presbyterian higher education in the United States. It’s been almost 300 years since this forward-thinking Presbyterian pastor established his ministerial Log College in Pennsylvania to educate and prepare commoners for ministry. The college was his response to the first “Great Awakening,” a revivalist movement in the early 18th century that aligned with the Presbyterian goal of “always being reformed.”

The success of Tennent’s Log College led directly to a broader effort by Presbyterians to formally train ministers in support of the Great Awakening. The first outcome of this effort was the College of New Jersey, which was founded in 1746 and would eventually be renamed as Princeton University. In its early years, the College of New Jersey was led by another forward-thinking Presbyterian pastor with a passion for education, John Witherspoon. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because Witherspoon also served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and was both the only active clergyman and college president to sign America’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.

The contributions of Tennent and Witherspoon inspired a generation of Presbyterian missionaries and pastors who subsequently spread out across the emerging nation establishing churches, schools and colleges. By the start of the Civil War, Presbyterians had founded over a quarter of all the colleges that existed in the United States. But even with this early emphasis on the importance of higher education, it’s hard to imagine that Tennent, Witherspoon or any other early American Presbyterian could have envisioned the extent to which Presbyterian higher education would evolve over time.

In the nearly 300 years that have passed since the Log College was established, Presbyterian-related colleges and universities have been extending and reinforcing the values of teaching, learning and service embedded in the Presbyterian tradition. Today, the 54 institutions of higher education that are part of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities (APCU) not only stretch “from sea to shining sea” but wrap around the world, serving more than 140,000 students each year.

It will come as no surprise that these schools have found 54 distinct ways to lean into their Presbyterian heritage. The result is a diverse set of academic, social and spiritual opportunities available across a diverse array of geographic settings. John Kuykendall, president emeritus of Davidson College, notes that this diversity reflects the “genius” of the Presbyterian approach to education because each institution is “free to seek its own way” and discover distinct ways to associate faith and learning.

However, all of our schools are bound by a shared commitment to access, equity and affordability that enables students from all backgrounds to be well-served. This is important when you consider that nearly 60 percent of those we enroll are the first in their families to attend college and almost half of them are from families with challenging socioeconomic circumstances.

The Inflection Points

Our 54 APCU member institutions have played a critical role in the development of an educated American workforce and have also served as important economic engines for the communities in which they are located. More importantly, they have demonstrated the wherewithal and creativity to successfully navigate two significant inflection points in the history of American higher education.

The first occurred after the Civil War when our nation’s colleges were forced to adapt to the loss of more than 750,000 Americans while simultaneously retooling to support a rapidly industrializing economy. Presbyterians responded by opening the doors of many of their schools to women and founding new colleges to educate formerly enslaved people (these include some of the first Historically Black Colleges & Universities in the country).

APCU institutions also demonstrated their creativity by adapting to the world that emerged after WWII. Following the passage of the GI Bill, American higher education opened to a much broader, more ethnically, educationally and socioeconomically diverse populace. Presbyterian colleges launched new academic programs in business and science to address emerging opportunities, introduced new services to support an increasingly diverse student body and committed to a range of social justice initiatives that would eventually be incorporated into the civil rights movement. Today, more than a third of the students served by APCU schools are from underrepresented minority groups.

Now we find ourselves at yet another inflection point, one accelerated by social unrest, political turmoil and the impact of a global pandemic that has further eroded an already-fragile higher education ecosystem. This current inflection point is forcing nearly all of the nation’s colleges and universities to reinvent themselves in light of the globalization of our economy, the emergence of new educational technologies, the pending collapse of the tuition-driven pricing model and a significant demographic downturn in the pool of prospective college students.

However, in this COVID-19 era, it will not necessarily be those colleges and universities with the largest endowments, deepest reserves or readily available credit lines that will remain most viable. While many of these institutions will survive, a good number of them will move incrementally toward irrelevance in the years ahead. Instead, the survivors will be those institutions of higher education that are able to adapt (or reform) themselves to the challenges presented by this inflection point while remaining true to their mandate and to why they were established in the first place.

The issues we are grappling with as a denomination – an aging membership base, declining financial support, and a 37 percent decline in membership over the past decade – make this inflection moment in American higher education even more challenging for Presbyterian colleges and universities. Many of our schools have experienced decreases in church support at the local level as well as a significant decline in the percentage of Presbyterian students enrolled — from 18 to 6 percent. And because Presbyterian schools serve as a major source of students for Presbyterian seminaries, those institutions have seen a 57 percent decrease in enrollments since 2010.

On our APCU campuses, the largest group of students now being served are those with no faith affiliation at all, the so-called “nones.” Furthermore, research from College Board suggests that only one out of five college-bound Presbyterian youth will consider a Presbyterian-related school over the next two years. Perhaps the majority of Presbyterian teens are not aware of the varied options that are available to them. Or maybe they have fallen victim to the general misperception that private higher education is no longer affordable. It is also possible that they simply lack sufficient knowledge about – and are deeply skeptical of – organized religion in general and the Reformed tradition in particular. Regardless of the contributing factors, the future of our schools will, once again, be shaped in large measure by our collective ability to navigate through the challenges presented by this current inflection point as well as those challenges that are trickling down to our schools from our denominational affiliation.

To this end, the APCU has worked closely with the Presbyterian Mission Agency to increase the amount of financial aid that is being awarded to Presbyterian college students. At this point, only $500,000 in grant and scholarship assistance is currently available each year to support all undergraduate Presbyterian students across the country. This represents less than one-half of one percent of the $93 million awarded by the Presbyterian Foundation for mission in 2020. If Presbyterian-related colleges and universities are to survive and remain viable, it is absolutely essential that we increase the amount of financial aid available to attract and support Presbyterian students.

In addition, the APCU is continuing to act as a proactive partner and advocate that supports Presbyterian colleges and universities in two critical areas: institutional health and spiritual vitality. With regard to institutional health:

We have developed a Peer Advising and Mentoring Network through which our presidents are able to work together to evaluate challenges, implement best practices and share success stories.

We have entered into strategic partnerships with a set of respected higher education service providers to offer our members exclusive benefits and discounted pricing that support operational effectiveness, enhance student services and increase educational value.

We have worked closely with the Presbyterian Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program to bring their respective resources and support to bear on cost containment initiatives, capital improvement projects and socially responsible investment strategies.

With regard to spiritual vitality:

We have integrated the Presbyterian College Chaplains Association into the APCU to ensure that our schools continue to honor the dignity and worth of every person they serve while emphasizing learning, faith, service and connection to each other, the church and the world.

We have worked with students, chaplains, congregations and mid councils to develop and implement Matthew 25-related initiatives at nearly two-thirds of our schools.

We have partnered with the Interfaith Youth Core and the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education to advance interfaith understanding and appreciation and to enrich the intellectual and theological exploration of vocation among the students we serve.

These efforts will be complemented by the launch of a new APCU “study away” program that will be available to students at all of our member institutions. The program is called the Tahoe Semester and it provides participating students with an amazing opportunity to study and explore the Lake Tahoe region. The curriculum will focus on the question “What is Nature?” through a set of Centre College courses drawn from the humanities and natural sciences. The program’s setting at the Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center on the shores of Lake Tahoe will provide an opportunity to deepen learning through guided wilderness experiences such as mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding and trail running.

This program will complement the Irish American Scholars Program and the Korean Studies Summer Program that are already available to students at APCU schools. However, this program is closely aligned with the commitment the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has made to addressing environmental concerns and embracing the Indigenous people of this continent.

The Fund for Presbyterian Higher Education

The final component of our response to the current set of challenges facing our schools is the creation of an endowment that will enable any college-bound Presbyterian student to attend an APCU member school without creating a financial burden for the student’s family.

Our schools are already doing all they can do to control costs and ensure that education remains accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Their willingness to collectively commit more than $1.2 billion in institutional support has helped to hold the average actual cost of attendance at APCU schools to just under $22,000 per year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that $22,000 is still a lot of money, especially for many of the families we serve.

For this reason, the APCU Board of Directors recently commissioned a fundraising study that is being led by two recently retired APCU presidents, John Roush from Centre College and Paul Baldasare from St. Andrews University. Much like William Tennent and John Witherspoon, these two forward-thinking leaders have committed a good portion of their professional careers to championing church-related higher education. They strongly believe that our schools are in a unique position to advance the PC(USA)’s vision for justice articulated in Matthew 25 as well as serve the six Great Ends of the Church. (Found in the “Book of Order,” the Great Ends of the Church are a set of six mission statements that define the life and work of the PC(USA). They include the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, the maintenance of divine worship, the preservation of the truth, the promotion of social righteousness and the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.)

Once established, the Fund for Presbyterian Higher Education will provide grants and scholarships to Presbyterian students enrolled at APCU schools. Dollars from the fund will complement and enhance student aid available from other sources, including the federal government and the institution of choice. Establishing such a fund is an ambitious long-term goal but one that must be realized if our colleges – and our denomination – are to remain vibrant for another 300 years.

In much the same way that William Tennent and John Witherspoon were instrumental in establishing a Presbyterian commitment to higher education in the early 18th century, the APCU plans to be instrumental in advancing this commitment for the 21st century and beyond. And much like Tennent and Witherspoon, we will be counting on prayers and support from scores of Presbyterians who have a passion for education and a concern for the future of our denomination to see it through.

Who knows? Perhaps this work will lead to a latter-day “Great Awakening” that helps to foster future generations of socially aware, socially active Presbyterians through exposure to the good work being done by 54 Presbyterian-related colleges and universities that remain grounded in faith and driven by discovery.