598 is not enough

Our colleges are a precious, underused asset

Oct 22, 2018 by and

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What are the chances that a Mennonite teenager today will go to a Mennonite Church USA college or university? Not that good, and much less than 10 years ago, according to Mennonite Education Agency.

Over the past decade, the number of Mennonite students at the five MC USA colleges has fallen by half. More precisely, from 2008 to 2017, the number of undergraduate full-time Mennonite students at MC USA colleges and universities declined from 1,504 to 773, or 49 percent.

These statistics come from MEA’s 2017 enrollment report, the most recent available. It is online at mennoniteeducation.org under “resources.”

Looking at MC USA students specifically, the picture is even more troubling. Last fall at the five institutions — Bethel, Bluffton, Eastern Mennonite, Goshen and Hesston — 598 full-time undergraduates were from MC USA congregations.

598.

This is not enough.

Yes, there are many excellent non-Mennonite schools, and a church college isn’t the best option for everyone. Certainly, no young person should be judged negatively for the choice he or she makes.

But somehow we’ve got to do better. All who care about the future of the Mennonite churches, whether MC USA or another denomination, need to promote Mennonite higher education more assertively. Without stronger support, our colleges will remain a precious asset that’s greatly underused.

Or maybe they won’t remain. Earlier this year, Grace University in Omaha, Neb., a school with Mennonite roots, closed. It’s a sobering reminder: A college can fail.

We shouldn’t be alarmist, but we also can’t afford to be complacent about the future of our colleges, especially when enrollment falls as low as it has on some campuses.

What would it take to turn the downward trend around? More persistent recruiting of Mennonite students? Maybe. Bigger congregational scholarship funds? That might help. Alumni going out of their way to encourage parents and youth to take a serious look at what the Mennonite colleges have to offer?

It could make a difference.

Bethel College psychology professor Dwight Krehbiel acknowledged the challenge in his remarks Oct. 7 at the inauguration of President Jonathan C. Gering. “We face a weaker commitment to Bethel from many of our traditional church constituencies,” Krehbiel said. This weakness appears to afflict all the MC USA colleges: Since 2008, each of the five saw undergraduate full-time Mennonite enrollment decline between 41 percent and 56 percent.

Of course, the purpose of Mennonite higher education extends beyond educating our own youth. Carlos Romero, MEA executive director, has said the colleges are shifting their perspective “from being schools for Mennonites to being Mennonite schools for all.” Every Mennonite school, not just those affiliated with MC USA, shares a mission to be a seedbed of Christian faith, with an Anabaptist flavor, for all who want to test the soil.

In his inaugural address, Gering cited the “grand gesture” of Bethel’s founders, who declared the college’s doors would swing open to the youth of all denominations. Today, Gering said, the cultural and religious diversity on campus is a cause for celebration. It is a wonder, he said, to see how a Christian liberal-arts education expands the mind and heart as students gain the wisdom, generosity and freedom to respect and understand the faith journeys of others.

Our churches and communities will be blessed if more of our own young people experience the intellectual and spiritual growth that happens on a Mennonite college campus.


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