The Affordability of Evangelical Colleges and Universities

Department of Education sealBack in January, Pres. Obama used part of his State of the Union address to generate enormous traffic for a page at the Department of Education (DOE) website: a “College Scorecard” that provided easy-to-understand data on the net cost, graduation rate, debt burden, and loan default rate for institutions of higher learning in this country, with comparisons to national averages. It would help prospective students and their parents know “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck,” said the president.

I didn’t blog about it at the time because the site was too busy to permit frequent visits, but after the Wall Street Journal pulled together the raw data as a single spreadsheet for an article on the high cost of liberal arts colleges like Bethel, I spent a little time pulling out the figures for the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a 118-member consortium of evangelical schools that I’ve reported on from time to time.

Here are the median numbers in each category for the CCCU, and then Bethel’s figures for comparison: (the numbers come from 2010-2011 federal loans; “Net Price” is the annual cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships; the graduation rate is for full-time, first-time students graduating with a bachelor’s degree within six years; the borrowing amounts refer to federal loans)

Net Price

Graduation Rate

Amount Borrowed

Median Loan Payment

Loan Default Rate

CCCU Median






Bethel (MN)






In an earlier series on social class at evangelical colleges and another post examining the Washington Monthly ranking of colleges and universities (which included net cost, debt, and graduation rate as part of its “social mobility” score), I found a mixed bag of results for the CCCU. In some respects, it generally does better than non-religious and even other religious sets of colleges in keeping costs down, but that’s not as true for its most prestigious members — and sometimes the lower cost is bound up with lower graduation rates… The DOE data reinforce that muddied impression. (No surprise, since I assume that the WM ranking is using at least some of the same data.)

The main thing that stuck out to me is an observation that is as unoriginal as it is significant:

If you want a Christian college education, you can save money up front, but it might come at a cost later on.

Aerial view of College of the Ozarks
College of the Ozarks: billing itself as “Hard Work U,” this conservative Presbyterian school in Missouri discourages students from taking on debt, offers extensive work-study and scholarships, and has a net price of less than $10,000 – Creative Commons (KTrimble)

Several CCCU members — overwhelmingly in the South, by the way — are quite successful in keeping their costs down. Even leaving out College of the Ozarks (which has such an unusual model that it’s hard to compare), fifteen schools in the consortium have median monthly loan payments that rank in the “Low” region on the DOE scorecard. Here they are, from lowest to highest month loan payment — but note their graduation and default rates.

Net Cost

Graduation Rate

Median Loan Payment

Loan Default Rate

Bryan (TN)





Louisiana College










Judson (AL)










Williams Baptist





U. of the Southwest





San Diego Christian





Howard Payne





N. Greenville





S.W. Baptist





E. Texas Baptist





Kentucky Christian





York (NE)





Emmanuel (GA)





To put this in a bit of context:

  • Nationally, about 58% of full-time, first-time students graduate from four-year bachelor’s schools within six years. None of the schools listed above reaches that average, and Judson, Emmanuel, Williams Baptist, Louisiana College, San Diego Christian, York, and the University of the Southwest all fall into the “Low” area for graduation rate on the DOE scorecard.
  • The loan default rate isn’t quite so problematic: only five of the fifteen are below the national average of 13.4% (Kentucky Christian, Howard Payne, East Texas Baptist, Univ. of the Southwest, and Emmanuel). But all save Judson, North Greenville, and Covenant College are below the CCCU median — which itself is probably much higher than parents and students wanted to see.
Judson College (AL)
Jewitt Hall, Judson College (AL) – Creative Commons (Rammerjammer)

It’s also worth noting that these schools aren’t viewed all that positively by their peers. I’ll ignore the always-problematic U.S. News rankings and turn back to the system introduced by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which uses an algorithm based on how often a college or university is treated as a peer (or “aspirant”) when schools, seeking points of comparison, request data from the DOE. (Here’s my post on that system from last September.) Four of these fifteen CCCU schools with Low monthly debt payments aren’t even ranked among the nearly 1600 in the CHE study. For the rest, the average ranking is 841. (Covenant College does best: #515. Williams Baptist is lowest: #1307.)

On the flip side, here’s the DOE cost/graduation/debt data for the eighteen CCCU members that were in the top 20% of the CHE table (from highest to lowest rank):

Net Cost

Graduation Rate

Median Loan Payment

Loan Default Rate

109. Wheaton





124. Seattle Pacific





177. Calvin





185. Gordon





203. Taylor





209. Azusa Pacific





210. Biola





219. Whitworth





228. Messiah





247. Westmont





266. Bethel (MN)





270. Abilene Christian





273. Union





274. Point Loma Nazarene





278. Cedarville





294. Dordt





304. Houghton





308. Anderson (IN)





Predictably, schools with high reputations also seem to have high costs and high graduation rates.

  • Fourteen of the most expensive schools in the CCCU are in the top quintile for reputation as measured by the CHE algorithm. Anderson, Dordt, Cedarville, and Houghton come in at a lower cost than The Master’s College and Seminary, Concordia-Irvine, San Diego Christian (see above), and Trinity Christian College. (And I’m sure the cost of living in California has a role to play for the first three of those four.) Interestingly, while Anderson, Cedarville, and Houghton are cheaper up front, they have higher debt loads than most of their pricier peers.
  • Thirteen of the eighteen highest graduation rates in the CCCU come from the eighteen schools in the CHE top quintile. Abilene Christian, Dordt, Union, Anderson, and Azusa Pacific are replaced by Northwest Christian, Goshen, Asbury, Indiana Wesleyan, and Geneva College.

Likewise, most of the schools listed above have very low loan default rates. In the entire CCCU, only The Master’s College and Seminary has a lower default rate than Bethel (excepting again College of the Ozarks, whose students don’t take out loans). As this may be one indirect indicator of what kinds of jobs and careers alumni enter (and even setting aside what to me are equally important questions about the quality of education as measured in terms of spiritual and character formation), it does suggest that an education at a Christian liberal arts school is still worth the initial higher cost.

Goshen College
Licensed by Creative Commons (Liz DeCoster)

P.S. One school that seems to do a good job of balancing all these factors is Goshen College, a leading Mennonite school. It graduates over 72% of students within six years, keeps its net price below $19,000, and has the 19th lowest monthly debt payment in the CCCU (just a bit over $180). It’s also in the top third of the CHE table (#429).

4 thoughts on “The Affordability of Evangelical Colleges and Universities

  1. Good stuff, Chris. I think you note well that CCCU colleges have some diversity in their student bodies as well as their tuition rates. Certainly Emmanuel (where I teach) isn’t unconcerned about graduation rates, but we’re also very intentional about recruiting and welcoming far more first-generation college students and other folks who statisticians would call “high risk” into our incoming classes.

    1. To be honest, I almost left Emmanuel out, knowing that you’d probably read this, and I didn’t want to convey the sense that graduation/default rates are great measures of, say, quality of faculty. But I’m glad that you chimed in, since your point appropriately punctures the puffing up of the Wheatons, Calvins, Gordons, and (dare I say) Bethels of the world, who (as I wrote in the social class series) are not necessarily that congenial — at the price point and in their cultures — to first-generation and other high-risk students.

      1. No worries, chief. I teach where I teach because these are the students I want to teach. There’s something to the training of the best and the brightest, and there’s also a reward for those who (attempt to) expand those categories. 🙂

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