Mennonite higher education provides transformational difference
By D. Merrill Ewert
“My son is a far better doctor than I will ever be because he went to Fresno Pacific University,” the highly respected physician said.
Startled, I blurted out, “Why?”
The father explained: The professors at the world-renowned university where he had graduated “did everything in their power to squeeze the last drop of faith out of me.” That process continued in medical school, he said, leaving him “amazed that I am still a Christian.”
By contrast, at Fresno Pacific his son was “grounded in his faith” and “nurtured in his relationship with the Lord” in ways that have made him the “caring and compassionate doctor” he has become. The FPU professors who taught his son were not only great teachers but also “wonderful mentors who became friends for life.”
Stories like this can be told about all Mennonite colleges and universities. These stories must be told today, when our nation’s institutions of higher learning, secular and religious, find themselves at the center of a national debate over the nature, purpose and value of higher education. Some critics argue that college has not only become too costly but that it also takes students too long to graduate. When they do, students leave burdened with debt and holding degrees that don’t lead to meaningful jobs or promising careers.
In our own churches, some families left struggling by the recession are now asking whether a degree from a Christian college is worth the added cost over tuition at a public university. Some denominations are even questioning whether their colleges and universities are worth the investment.
The commitment of Mennonite higher education
Christians created higher education in the United States. All but one of the nine colleges in colonial America had as a major goal preparing ministers for the church. The College of Philadelphia (today the University of Pennsylvania) was the exception. Christian institutions had a virtual monopoly until the revolution, but it was the Morrell Act of 1862 establishing the Land Grant System that sparked the significant expansion of public universities.
Mennonites in the United States, Goshen College Professor Paul Keim suggests in an article published in The Future of Religious Colleges, came late to higher education, but moved forward vigorously at the turn of the 20th century once the need was established.
More than a century ago, Mennonite leader S. B. Wenger wrote: “Our young people will have an education and if we cannot give it to them in well-guarded schools of our own, they will go out into other schools and get it, and according to past experiences we need not expect more than a small percentage of them to return to the church …. Many bright young minds have been lost to the church by going out into the world schools to acquire an education (quoted in Keim).”
Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., came first in 1887. Goshen (Ind.) followed in 1894, Bluffton (Ohio) in 1899, Tabor (Kan.) in 1908, Hesston (Kan.) in 1909 and Eastern Mennonite University (Va.) in 1917. Pacific Bible Institute, which ultimately became Fresno Pacific University (Calif.), opened in 1944.
Over the years all these institutions have evolved in response to changing conditions and new opportunities, revising missions, adding programs, gaining accreditation, sometimes changing names and even moving to new locations. What has not changed is the commitment of our Mennonite colleges and universities. They continue to prepare students for jobs, vocations and service to the church and the world.
Any college degree makes a significant difference in peoples’ lives. In How College Affects Students, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini summarize thousands of studies done over three decades on the impact of undergraduate education. They found that college degrees increase students’ levels of critical thinking, verbal and quantitative skills and general knowledge. Graduates have greater self-confidence and leadership skills, stronger networks of social support and lower levels of abuse and family violence.
They are also more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke or engage in substance abuse. College graduates live longer, are more likely to have health insurance and enjoy greater financial security. People with at least some college are also more likely to vote, give blood and volunteer in their communities. They are also less likely to draw on public assistance.
A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the median annual income of Millennials (ages 25-32) working full-time in 2012 was $45,500 for those with at least a bachelor’s degree, $30,000 for those with a two-year degree or some college and $28,000 for high school graduates. The unemployment rate for Millennials was 3.8 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree and above, 8.1 percent for an associate degree or some college and 12.2 for high school grads. Most importantly, the poverty rate is only 5.8 percent for Millennials with a bachelor’s degree, versus 14.7 percent for those with an associate’s degree or some college and 21.8 percent for those with high school degrees.
These trends will intensify in the future. A Georgetown University study found that 72 percent of the jobs available in 1972 required a high school diploma or less. By 2010, that number had fallen to 41 percent. Researchers project that of the 164 million jobs expected in 2020, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) will require some college. While there will always be jobs that do not require undergraduate training, attending college improves one’s economic prospects.
Impacting society and the church
As important as higher education is to the prosperity of individuals, the work of Christian colleges and universities also matters to wider society and the church. Pascarella and Terenzini found that college increases a student’s “level of principled moral reasoning,” a very important finding at a time when many in our society have lost their moral compass.
This increase in moral reasoning, the researchers found, is greater among those students from small, private institutions than those at public colleges and universities. Though we have always believed Christian institutions strengthen values, research confirms our Mennonite colleges and universities are places where lives are transformed and people are prepared for ministry and service.
A year or so after I became president of Fresno Pacific, my wife, Priscilla, and I participated in a seminar on the university presidency as a vocation and calling. Funded by a major foundation, 20 presidents and their spouses spent several days discussing university leadership.
Though we had never met before, "Richard," president of a historically black institution, and I often came down on the same side in discussions. He had been a tenured professor and administrator at another Ivy League university during the time I had taught and served as director of extension at Cornell.
Between sessions, several presidents gathered around us and asked what teaching in the “Ivies” was like. We both said the students are very bright, which makes teaching both challenging and fun. Richard joked, “My students were a lot smarter than I am!”
“The same at Cornell,” I added, “I never accepted a new Ph.D. student unless I was convinced she/he was smarter than me.”
After a short silence, another president mused, “That must have made the decision for you guys to leave "Ivy University" and Cornell very difficult.”
Richard said, “Not really.” I agreed and then asked, “Richard, during those 12 years at Ivy University, how many times did a student come up to you and say, ‘I thank God for this univeristy! My life has forever changed because I came here. I’m so glad that I came to Ivy University!’”
Richard thought a moment and said, “It never happened; no one ever said that to me. How about you, Merrill? How often did someone tell you that Cornell changed his or her life?”
“Never,” I replied, “I don’t recall ever hearing those words from a student during my 11-plus years at Cornell.”
“So Richard,” I continued, “how often do students tell you that they thank God for the university you serve as president; that going there changed their lives?”
“At least once a day,” he replied. “And how about you, Merrill? How often do you hear that at Fresno Pacific?”
“Not nearly as often as you do,” I responded. “I probably hear it only two or three times a week.”
The group again fell silent. Then another president said, “I get it.”
Education an investment, not an expense
The word that best captures our denominational schools is “transformational.” I regularly saw lives transformed at Fresno Pacific University, and it happened to me at Tabor College. Tabor helped me develop my critical thinking, analytical and writing skills. My professors introduced me to new fields of study, broadened my views of the world, shaped my understanding of ministry and helped call me to a life of missions and service.
A college education should not be considered an expense. It’s an investment in people that affirms our God-given capacity to learn and grow. Our denominational schools are staffed by outstanding teachers who love, guide and mentor their students. And as these students learn, they walk through doors of opportunity—to serve the church, to shape our institutions, to lead in our communities and to minister to the world.
President emeritus of Fresno Pacific University, Merrill Ewert and his wife, Priscilla, currently live in Phoenix, Ariz., where he is doing research, writing and consulting. Coming from Cornell University, he served as FPU president from 2002 to 2012. After retiring from FPU, he worked as an advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Education in Washington, DC.