'Unique contribution': Religious college leaders unite to tackle challenges facing higher education

Former Brigham Young University-Idaho and Brigham Young University-Pathway President Elder Clark Gilbert (middle) speaks during an American Council on Education event on Jan. 12, 2023, in Washington D.C. He was joined by Shirley Hoogstra (right), the president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.
Former Brigham Young University-Idaho and Brigham Young University-Pathway President Elder Clark Gilbert (middle) speaks during an American Council on Education event on Jan. 12, 2023, in Washington D.C. He was joined by Shirley Hoogstra (right), the president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. | The Christian Post/Nicole Alcindor

A new commission seeks to draw attention to how faith-based colleges and universities are working to make higher education more affordable for students and foster collaboration between religious institutions and their secular counterparts. 

The American Council on Education has launched its new Commission on Faith-based Colleges and Universities, a result of a January 2023 conference attended by America's leading religious universities, which discussed how distinctive religious identities can help schools combat the challenges facing the higher education landscape. 

The Commission on Faith-based Colleges and Universities will seek solutions to issues faith-based and secular institutions are facing. 

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"ACE is honored to support and convene this important commission," said ACE President Ted Mitchell. "Faith-based institutions connect feelings of belief and belonging with intellectual expression and considering the social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us today, we can ill afford for religious universities to be hidden."

Clark Gilbert, commissioner of the Church Education System of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Council for Christian Colleges and Universities President Shirley Hoogstra were named the commission's inaugural co-chairs.

"A faith-based mission on campus can unite people with diverse backgrounds and drive accessibility in education," Gilbert said. "This is happening all across America, where young adults are looking for somewhere that will value and recognize their faith. And they don't often feel that in other institutions."

Hoogstra said that "it is vital to celebrate and advance the different contributions that various sectors of higher education represent" in today's higher education climate.

She stressed that "religious universities offer a unique contribution to the world" and is excited about "the broad involvement and support of the institutions represented on this inaugural committee and ACE's leadership."

In an interview with The Christian Post, Gilbert and Hoogstra indicated that while all faith-based higher education institutions are invited to join the commission, leaders of slightly more than a dozen such colleges and universities are currently on the Commission's Executive Committee. 

Members of the Executive Committee are Robin Baker of George Fox University, Ari Berman of Yeshiva University, Rochelle Ford of Dillard University, Jim Gash of Pepperdine University, John Jenkins of the University of Notre Dame, Peter Kilpatrick of the Catholic University of America, D. Michael Lindsay of Taylor University, Candice McQueen of Lipscomb University, Leslie Pollard of Oakwood University, C. Shane Reese of Brigham Young University, Philip Ryken of Wheaton College, Beck Taylor of Samford University and Dwaun Warmack of Claflin University.

The ACE Commission will hold its first event in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Representatives from 40-50 institutions are expected to attend. Hoogsta praised the member schools as "very diverse" institutions that have "a cross-section of faith expressions" and share "common questions and common goals."

"If we get together, it's a way to be better," she said. "We're finding so many common areas of interest that are so important to religiously affiliated schools in today's otherwise very secular higher education environment."

Hoogstra said the commission will convene "conversations that have common interest that … we think educates the broader higher education landscape on the ways that we are doing affordability, accessibility and accountability within the education sector." Gilbert said religious schools "all want to help each other preserve a religious mission."

Gilbert described a religious mission as "something that's important to our own efforts at character building" and "important to our own rights as religious people of faith."

"We also hope it can be a resource to the nation to help higher education be more innovative," he said. "One of the things you'll often hear outside of the religious framework is people look to the universities to be true to their authentic mission and authentic identity. Well, for us, that starts with religious mission."

"But it also lets us do things that grow out of our religious mission that help the whole academy strive to serve students who are in need or students who struggle," he added.

Hoogstra said religious institutions "can leverage their networks to have affordable education." She detailed how Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, a school affiliated with the Assemblies of God, is "leveraging all their large church networks, and they are offering, albeit a limited degree, for under $10,000."

She identified this arrangement as ideal for students "interested in staying closer to home" and embracing a "hybrid and in-person model."

Hoogstra insisted that "if you didn't have this whole network of churches that could be the place where the education happens … you would have a harder time doing that so that's leveraging other assets related to Christian missions for affordability."

Gilbert, whose duties involve overseeing Brigham Young University in Utah, pointed to a new institution called BYU-Pathway as another example of how faith-based colleges are making education much more affordable.

"BYU-Pathway has leveraged online learning with the global footprint of the church's meeting houses that have Wifi networks to distributed gatherings and online learning at a much lower cost. BYU Pathway students can earn a bachelor's degree for around $7,500."

Gilbert estimated that 70,000 of the 150,000 students at Brigham Young University and other universities operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints participate in the BYU-Pathway program.

Another innovation from religious schools touted by Gilbert and Hoogstra was work-study programs at the College of the Ozarks and BYU Hawaii, where students are "able to work and have their tuition and housing and other costs supported while they're going through college."  

Gilbert views a collaboration between religious and secular institutions as a way to "raise the dialogue of the importance of pluralism in America." Hoogstra said collaborations between secular and faith-based universities have helped students appreciate the concept of pluralism.

"Oberlin College and Spring Arbor University had an opportunity to look at a common problem, and I believe it was the problem of incarceration," she recalled. "Students from Oberlin really didn't know students from Spring Arbor, and they had some preconceived … notions about what Christian college students were like. And students from Spring Arbor thought 'I wonder what students from Oberlin are like,' and everybody had a one-dimensional look. But through this program … they were able to do a whole exchange."

"The same thing happened in California with Biola University and Pomona," Hoogstra added, noting that "what we have found and what we think this ACE Commission is going to be able to undergird is this eagerness to understand each other as three-dimensional people and institutions. A lot of times, you have preconceived notions like 'What's BYU about' or 'What's Wheaton College about?'"

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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