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Deseret News op-ed: A spiritual mandate for educational innovation


Deseret News opinion article by Clark G. Gilbert, Shane Reese and Alvin F. Meredith III

The nation’s higher education establishment is dealing with much more than a passing PR problem. From rising costs to questions about relevance and the very definition of moral character, recapturing public trust will demand substantive action and innovation. Parents, students and employers are looking for academic institutions to better reflect the needs and values of their communities.

It is in this climate that the distinctive educational offerings provided through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are of increasing relevance and value. Enrollment in the Church Educational System continues to defy declining national trends — over the past 20 years, enrollment in church universities, including BYU, BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway, has grown nearly threefold, increasing from 60,000 students in 2000 to nearly 150,000 students today.

At a time when national observers are concerned about the demand for higher education, this growth stands out from the downward trends. Just over a decade ago, Pew reported that an overwhelming majority of college graduates (86%) said their degree was “a good investment for them personally.” But this year, Pew released a report that suggests that a mere 1 in 4 adults in the United States believe it’s “extremely or very important” to get a four-year degree in order to obtain “well-paying” employment. Almost 50% of Americans say a four-year diploma is less important for employment than it was 20 years ago. Whereas rates of college attendance are increasing in other nations, the United States is in a 13-year slide.

Negative attitudes toward higher education reflect two trends. First, spiraling tuition prices are increasing the total cost of attendance, and second, too much of higher education is not relevant to today’s job market. Additionally, in some corners, the academy has become increasingly governed by agendas that don’t reflect the moral values of most American families.

In such a setting, CES provides a unique resource through its faith-based governance and spiritual mission. CES’s governance, financial stewardship and innovative approaches have kept the church’s educational offerings both affordable and relevant, especially in a season of uncertainty.

The benefits of a college degree include increased self-reliance, enhanced reasoning abilities, higher civic and community engagement, broader social networks, higher marriage rates and deepened appreciation for different perspectives. Extensive data show college graduates have substantially higher earnings throughout their career than those who don’t have a college degree. In short, education remains a good value proposition overall.

Value in the Church Educational System

Of course, the value of an education only increases as costs are managed and student benefits are strengthened. Costs can be measured not only in the tuition price but also in time to graduation and the amount of debt required to obtain a degree. In turn, benefits are strengthened through increased learning, impactful social networks and professional opportunities. Innovation on the campuses of BYU, BYU-Idaho and other church institutes are distinctively helping increase the value of a degree by managing both the costs and increasing the benefits of an education.

On cost and affordability, the church’s governance of its education system has kept the student expenses remarkably affordable. Church schools receive significant and generous tithing support, but they have also been expected to innovate in ways that keep the actual costs financially sustainable.

It’s one thing to be committed to affordable education through subsidies such as tithing, taxes and donations. It’s another to answer the call from inspired church leaders to innovate in service of students and society. Such efforts have led to the year-round, three-track calendar at BYU-Idaho; online learning and the use of distributed chapels through BYU-Pathway; reducing time on campus at BYU-Hawaii by leveraging early academic progress in BYU-Pathway and launching a 90-credit bachelor’s degree at Ensign, BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway.

There is also a fiscal discipline that’s visible across CES. The foundations of this discipline were laid generations before any of us assumed our current assignments. Those principles of frugality were practiced over a generation of leadership, where variable expenditures were held below inflationary increases. These small differences, applied over decades, have also helped to support the affordable college tuition our students realize today.

Indeed, church schools provide some of the most affordable post-secondary educational opportunities. U.S. News has ranked BYU No. 2 in the country in graduates with the least amount of debt, and No. 11 as the best value school. BYU is No. 20 in the Best Colleges in America rankings from The Wall Street Journal, which puts a very strong emphasis on the value added by colleges. BYU-Idaho is ranked No. 1 by Payscale as best in value in first-year return on investment. BYU-Idaho is also ranked No. 1 in value for universities by College Consensus. Finally, recent data also show that students at BYU and BYU–Idaho have significantly lower student loan default rates, 1.5% and 3.1%, respectively, far below the national average of 10.1%.

Relevance in the Church Educational System

Church education’s emphasis on employment, provident living and self-reliance are especially relevant today as some within higher education drift away from market needs and a student-centric focus. The certificate-first approach at BYU-Pathway, the job skills training at Ensign College, the workplace experience of BYU-Idaho faculty, the work-study programs at BYU-Hawaii, and the curricular integration and inspired learning opportunities at BYU all aim to help enhance employment prospects of students.

But being relevant in today’s environment also means taking seriously our charge to develop disciples of Jesus Christ who can be leaders in their homes, the church and their communities. It’s an approach which seeks to develop the whole student. This requires ongoing efforts to hire faculty who are aligned with this mission, the growth and reach of religion and student success courses and devotionals from presidents that amplify prophetic counsel.

An educated workforce is vitally important, but in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are deeper, spiritual reasons to pursue education. This includes the spiritual nature of learning and the increased opportunity that education brings in serving others. As Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has stated, “In the Church, obtaining an education and getting knowledge are a religious responsibility. We educate our minds so that one day we can render service of worth to somebody else.” This is why the church works to provide affordable education that is valuable in both the workplace and in a student’s lifelong spiritual and intellectual development.

How the Church Educational System and its schools respond to the challenges facing higher education writ large will reflect the divinely inspired direction which continues to shape our trajectory. Speaking of BYU specifically, President Dallin H. Oaks of the church’s First Presidency, said, ”(I) firmly believe that it is the destiny of Brigham Young University to become what those prophetic statements predicted it would become … this great goal will not be attained in exactly the same way that other universities have achieved their greatness … it will become the great university of the Lord ― not in the world’s way but in the Lord’s way.”

These are the aspirations that inspire BYU, BYU-Idaho and the entire Church Educational System to elevate our efforts. The value of education for our students, their families and the church reflects these expansive and eternal expectations.

Elder Clark G. Gilbert is a General Authority Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and currently serves as commissioner of the Church Educational System. Alvin F. Meredith III is the president of Brigham Young University–Idaho. C. Shane Reese is the president of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.