The Future of Adventist Higher Education: Evidence that demands action

Higher education is now fully experiencing true “disruption," fueled by dramatic demographic changes, increasing costs, multiple options for acquiring content and skill expertise, and intensifying questions about proof of investment and readiness for careers. Adventist Higher Education is not immune to these pressures. In the last 7 years higher education enrollment has declined by 14% averaging a loss of 548 students a year. (633 students down in fall of 2019) While national enrollment demographics are radically changing along with projected college-going populations,[i] Adventist P-12 education is not experiencing the growth they have historically. The writing is on the wall: Adventist Higher Education will be drastically different in 2030. We either pivot toward a new model or face a future of incremental efforts for change with likely substantive declines, increased financial subsidies and a severely marginalized educational offering.

We, in the industry, have been aware of these trends and their impact, our larger constituents have not. In fact, various leaders and constituencies have met to assess the data and build plans of cooperation and collaboration which have had various degrees of success. In April of 2009, the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities (AACU) established a Planning Committee to explore models for increased collaboration and hired the first employee to coordinate marketing efforts. This Committee identified the underlying challenge to any substantive change: the most valuable opportunities would require a higher level of structural reorganization which was quickly identified as impossible to achieve without constituency buy-in and support.

 

Instead, recommendations were made for low-risk partnership activities, many of which have been tested and are underway between a small number of the 13 schools. In January of 2015, the Union Presidents and College Presidents met in Florida to review the trends and build consensus for more adaptive change. While various opportunities were discussed, the group agreed that lasting positive change was unlikely without a new structural model which would be in and of itself, virtually impossible to achieve without constituency buy-in and support. Under the leadership of AACU in August of 2018 the “Chicago Summit” was held The summit was attended by over 200 NAD leaders in Higher Education including union presidents, conference presidents, college/university presidents, faculty leaders and interested laypersons. The outcome was that over 90% of attendees voted an affirmation to more explicitly and thoroughly explore a strategic alliance, consisting of a coalition of the willing, with the goal of first piloting and then evaluating the efficacy of an eventual higher education system. Coming out of that affirmation, a small taskforce was identified who again met to both examine data, design opportunities, and make recommendations about navigating change. Most recently, the AACU Planning Committee affirmed a vision statement for a unified educational model, with definitions and targeted goals. However, this taskforce identified the underlying obstacles for change and suggested that a new model must be designed but cannot be conceived of nor implemented without the buy-in of the constituent membership.

We have been talking about this for almost three decades with minimal substantive change. 

We cannot remain in our institutional and organizational silos and merely discuss these challenges any longer. This is not about the survival of one or two of our 13 schools. This is about creating a new form of Adventist Higher Education that leads the way in North America in providing the highest quality, affordable educational preparation for a life of service and a productive career. It is the conviction of leadership that the strength of the church in North America will be as strong as its education system. It is the Stewarding of the Lord’s resources and the church’s relevant role in our church and society.  We either fund the future or prop up a soon to be obsolete past.

Leadership is unable to build and implement the substantive changes needed for a thriving future without the understanding, help, and creative ideas of the very constituencies they are trying to serve. Rather than meeting yet again with various higher education expertise, it is time to engage our constituencies in the solution. We believe it is critical to fully update our dedicated constituencies about both the realities of higher education and the current state of our 13 institutions. We must engage their creativity, build their support for change, and ensure the vision of the future for Adventist Higher Education reflects their values and meets their needs. 

To that end, the current Taskforce has outlined a creative and exciting plan for an “Innovation Journey” - a means to crowd source innovative ideas toward the renewal of higher education in the United States and Canada and to build consensus for the need to have significant change in the North American Division. Over the course of the next year (as outlined in the attached timeline), our plan will build consensus with key leadership about the process itself and proposed action outcomes, finalize the design of the crowd sourcing content and strategic communication plans, implement the constituency engagement, and report findings at another summit in the fall of 2020 or 21. It is our belief that the results of this constituency engagement will provide the necessary buy-in and innovative ideas for significant change within Adventist Higher Education and inform the development of a new model.

We must not relax in the belief that tomorrow will bring solutions, we can’t gamble on the future. Today is the only reality we have, and the challenge we face is a defining moment we must not waste. We have abundant opportunities at this moment to present to the educational world the unique whole person education of the Seventh-day Adventist church.

We strongly urge national and institutional leadership to consider the financial and political support of this project as outlined in this document.

            The challenge to higher education leaders is to “re-imagine their role from

stewards of an existing enterprise to innovators of a new venture.” – Louis Soares,

American Council on Education

[i] Grawe, N.D. (2017). Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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