Let me first admit my biases. I am a product of Adventist education. I was initially nurtured in a little two-room rural church school in Troy, Idaho. Average attendance: 25 students. The next stop was Upper Columbia Academy near Spokane, Washington, where I also met my wife. Then I was on to Walla Walla College, now a university, and finally to Loma Linda University. Only in my graduate studies after medicine did I step out of this caring environment to a secular institution. Those educational years have served me well, with many friends, understandings, and anchors I will always cherish. I have never felt deprived by my educational roots.
There is much for which our church is known and can be justifiably proud. Two of our most distinctive characteristics and contributions to our communities are our educational and health-care systems. For most of the world, their only knowledge of Adventists comes from contact with our health professionals or our schools. These enterprises were both envisioned and empowered by Ellen White, and have clearly provided credibility and recognition throughout our church’s history.
Many Adventists, particularly in the United States, have a shared heritage and even language that come from our common educational backgrounds. The initials of a college are usually all that is necessary in a conversation to identify a person with a part of the country and even a certain image. Our North American colleges have a 125-year legacy of providing graduates for the world church, who have in turn established schools and hospitals throughout the world. Our common theological understandings, our social values, our commitment to mission, and many other characteristics of this movement are a result of the solid foundation laid in our educational institutions.
The last several decades, however, have seen major changes and concerns arise in our educational system. Internationally, many of our colleges have obtained national recognition and government charters that enable them to expand and compete in their own countries. This growth and recognition are valuable, but also lead to new challenges for these institutions as they struggle to remain distinctively Adventist.
In North America, as well as Europe and Australia, the issues are different. Our entire system, from elementary schools to universities, is faced with unprecedented pressures. Usually led by financial challenges, our schools have been forced to adapt and change in many ways to remain viable. The recent global economic pressures are accelerating these changes, though most of the difficult issues have developed over a period of several decades.
Those of us who serve at the college and university levels here in the United States are watching these fundamental changes with considerable concern. As the church’s elementary school system struggles, academies suffer. As academies graduate fewer Adventist students, colleges suffer. Even at the graduate level, while our programs are stronger and more diverse than ever, the number of Adventist students applying and matriculating continues to decrease. A recent survey of North American Adventist college and university presidents revealed deep concerns about the long-term viability of our system without major changes in the way we do business.
North American Trends
The total academy enrollment in the church’s North American Division (NAD) reached a peak in 1980 at just over 20,000 students, almost all of whom came from Adventist backgrounds. But for the past 15 years academy enrollment has averaged nearer 15,000, with growing percentages of students emerging from Christian backgrounds other than Adventist. During that same 25 years the church’s membership in North America has grown significantly: the actual number of Adventist students in our academies in this division has decreased from more than 25 per 1,000 members in 1980 to fewer than 15 today. A recent report in the Pacific Union Recorder shows an 18 percent decline in K-12 enrollment in that union conference during the past 10 years alone. The NAD system of 1,031 elementary and secondary schools and 14 colleges and universities faces serious challenges!
If we look back to the 1970s, we discover that there were 10 Adventist colleges and two universities in North America, with a combined enrollment of slightly fewer than 20,000 students. The vast majority of these students came from Adventist backgrounds, moving up through Adventist primary and secondary schools. Today we boast seven colleges and seven universities, with a combined enrollment of around 24,000 students. But if we deduct the enrollment at the three North American health science colleges—Loma Linda, Kettering, and Florida—the total number of students in our liberal arts colleges has actually declined in the past 30 years to around 17,000, despite a gradual but steady increase in church membership. Of that number, it’s estimated that as many as 20 percent may now come from other faith traditions, making the number of Adventist students significantly smaller than it has historically been.
There appear to be many reasons for these trends. First, there is a growing acceptance of secular educational options among Adventist families. This is probably because of a decreasing emphasis on the distinctiveness of our educational system in Adventist churches. This may be inevitable when a growing number of our own pastors are first-generation Adventists who were not educated in the Adventist system. They are more comfortable with the public education they personally experienced, and accept that option as they nurture their congregations.
Some would point out that, generally speaking, there is a less exclusive mind-set in North American Adventism, which they believe on balance to be good. But when considering education for our children, this translates into acceptance of educational options in the public school system and other private schools. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has used the model of nurturing their young people in their homes and congregations rather than through a church school system, and has done it well. Adventists have depended more on our schools for this bonding, particularly at the college level, and have not developed a similar support system for our students attending secular institutions.
Financial pressures are certainly also part of this picture. Many new families joining the church come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and simply do not have, or believe they do not have, the means to pay our tuition rates. Within that reality various justifications are used for sending Adventist children to public school that are understood and accepted. Families often hope to have their children attend Adventist schools at a later stage, though this is usually difficult because of the social connections and peer pressures that develop. Once there is an acceptance of secular options for education, it’s difficult to bring a child back into the church system. Recent efforts by our colleges have started to reverse that trend, however, as we look to recruit Adventist students from the public sector. Fifty percent of the incoming freshmen at La Sierra University are Adventist students coming from public high schools, showing promise for this “recapture.”
Another unknown variable on attendance is the location of our schools and proximity to Adventist membership. Some argue that travel is both less expensive and more convenient today, supporting consolidation of our schools into a few favored places. But many new Adventists come from cultures that place importance on close family relationships and are hesitant to send their children too far away to a boarding academy or even college.
Surely there are many other reasons, as diverse as our church itself. Undoubtedly some are anecdotally driven, stories of events or behaviors at a particular school that raise concerns. But one would hope that most families have the wisdom to sort through this kind of occasional background noise and make a principled decision about their children’s future.
It’s interesting to note that some smaller, independent, more conservative Adventist schools continue to survive under the same conditions that seem to be debilitating to others. A few of our colleges are thriving. This would imply that some in the church with discretionary dollars continue to search out the best options to protect their children from secular influences and deem it money well spent.
Charting a New Direction
It seems there are two basic approaches the North American church could take in light of these unmistakable trends. It can let market forces continue to modify our educational system until a new model emerges. This may gradually result in the closure of many of our current schools at all three levels—primary, secondary, and college. A few will undoubtedly survive through the good fortune of location, reputation, or particular assets. Others will adapt to market pressures and gradually become Christian schools with a broad base of support from community churches of various kinds. In either case, the educational network we have known from the church’s beginnings in North America would be gone forever.
The other approach would be to carefully analyze all the issues and seek a strategy that manages the challenges and charts the future. What this would look like can be only guessed at until the hard work is done. But it just seems that our educational heritage is too important and central to this church not to want to face the problem collectively with our best minds and resources.
There are some unique challenges even to having this level of discussion, including the current church structure in North America. Our decentralized model of church administration has served us well in many respects. But when tough collective decisions are needed, it’s easy for each administrative unit to defend its own priorities and protect its own interests. This results in decision making for the collective good being a tedious and often difficult option. Many good ideas in the church struggle for traction because of this emphasis on collaborative decision making. To be fair, the same process has also protected us many times from wrong decisions and has contributed to a collective sense of church ownership. Certainly the educational decisions we face are going to be tough, and may inadvertently appear to pit one part of the church against another. Only a common commitment to our shared mission and objectives will keep us together through this process.
There Is Hope
Many of the current Adventist Church leaders share educational roots similar to mine—a nurturing and supportive childhood and adolescence through our church school system. They understand the issues and can also give personal testimony to the results when this system runs well. What we seem to easily forget is how special this was, and is. Education, as eloquently articulated by Ellen White, is more than just the acquisition of knowledge. It is a preparation for life, a divinely inspired view of the world and its issues. Our theological perspectives, understood early and well, can provide a framework for facing life issues that will make everything else make sense. This is a gift that no amount of public education can replace, regardless of the quality of lab equipment or class size.
The challenge is that many Adventists don’t value this distinctiveness enough to adequately support it. My friend Elissa Kido, from La Sierra University, is leading an invaluable study called CognitiveGenesis that looks closely at the North American church’s educational system. She and her colleagues have strong data to confirm that even the smallest of our Adventist schools are able to educate children who are not only competitive academically, but are balanced and ready to face the uncertain challenges of life. This wholistic view of the human experience, grounded in an essentially Adventist view of Scripture and education, yields a solid, sensible worldview that no other educational system can offer.
The time has come when we must have an open and wide-ranging discussion about the future of Adventist schools in North America. They have given us too much to now ignore their challenges, and are too important to leave to fate.
We need creative thinkers to carefully look at all the issues, balance the values against the risks, and chart a new direction. All our schools, from the one-room rural elementary schools to the strongest universities, need to be part of this discussion. We all have something to offer and much to gain.
Richard Hart, M.D., DR.P.H., is a president of Loma Linda University. This article was published November 12, 2009.