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Reaction to the Southern New England Conference Executive Committee’s Action to Withdraw Subsidy to Atlantic Union College

When Atlantic Union College restarted its academic programs in August 2015, some community members and stakeholders raised questions along the following lines:

1. Why would one start a school in today’s competitive higher education industry?

2. Do we need another Seventh-day Adventist college/university in North America?

3. Why should a parent send his/her child to a school without accreditation? Without financial aid?

These questions will be answered in the paragraphs below.

Rationale

It is important to address these questions by looking at the big picture of higher education in North America. The literature regarding higher education today points out that the industry is experiencing a major storm, and some of the challenges colleges and universities are facing relate to high cost, students needing remedial courses, and mental health issues with high cost being responsible for most of the problem. In October 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in a meeting of 100 college leaders said that college costs are too high, graduation rates are too low, and there is too little accountability.

High Cost and Student Loan Debt

The availability of loans, especially in higher education, combined with the financial illiteracy of consumers has produced unintended consequences that are negatively affecting college graduates. Some of these consequences are these: the sharp increase of college tuition and fees, decrease in students’ working to pay for school fees, and the reduction of family financial support to college students.

Sharp Increase of College Tuition

The graph below from the August 2014 Bloomberg Report, shows that tuition and fees have increased by 1,225% since 1978, and a sharp increase is noticed in the early 1990s and early 2000s. These periods correspond to the U.S. economic recessions. Even though there are many factors that contributed to this sharp increase, the credible explanation for the increase of tuition way beyond medical care and shelter would be the wide availability of student loans in the early 1990s. College and university administrators, squeezed by the reduction of state or other outside support, increased tuition and fees, knowing this: “If students don’t have the money, they can borrow.” Thus, the financial burdens shifted to students who believed they had no other choice but to borrow more.

Unlike other consumer debt, this is the most dangerous debt because it must be paid; declaring bankruptcy does not discharge this kind of debt. Borrowers cannot run away from it. According to Frank Donoghue in his article “The Current State of U.S. Higher Education, Top to Bottom,” the lenders take no risks in offering them even to unqualified students.

This, in the long run, threatens small private education institutions. Most graduates are underemployed which forces them to have more than one job to meet their monthly payment. To defer payment of their loans, they go back to school, accumulating more loans. This has serious implications to our church communities.

The June 2015 U.S. News & World Report reported that a student standing in front of his school holding his diploma after graduation tweeted “Piece of paper for sale. Only $138,600 some dude in a robe gave it to me today. Not sure what to do with it.”

For some people, graduating with a debt of $100,000+ may be difficult to understand. Many college students these days are from low-income, first-generation families. Because their parents did not save for college, the only option they have is to borrow. If they enroll in a private school which costs $25,000 a year for tuition and fees and graduate in five years (which is the average), their debt can reach $100,000 if the student financed part of his/her education with additional funds.

After the economic crisis of 2008, economists have said several times that the student loan debt is the next bubble that will burst in the near future.

Reduction of Student Work Hours

Because loans are available and because of the financial illiteracy of consumers, students do not feel the need to work to pay for their college education. Those who work, do not work as many hours as expected. Yet the dignity of work is part of the philosophy of Adventist Education. 

Family and Community Financial Support

When baby boomers went to college, family members (parents, uncles, aunts, cousins) would provide financial support to them. Since loans became available, this kind of support has significantly declined or even disappeared. Hence, the financial burden has shifted again to students.

Need for Remedial Courses

In a report from a summit on higher education organized by TIME in October 2012, participants were encouraged to take a more active role in K-12 to help close the enormous gap between the skills and knowledge high school graduates have and the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in college. Currently, more than a third of undergraduates require remedial courses. Remedial college courses not only increase time to graduation but also add significant cost to the student.

WHY ATLANTIC UNION COLLEGE (AUC)?

Seventh-day Adventists in the Northeast, Home of Atlantic Union College

The northeast has become the home of many immigrants, and the Adventist Church is no exception. The Church in this region is very diverse. In the Southern New England Conference alone, 47% of membership and 51% of churches are non-English (All Nations, Cape Verdean, Chinese, Ghanaian, Haitian, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish). This percentage could be higher if we looked at the union-wide data. This is unique in the North American Division. No other union is so diverse. AUC provides limited scholarships to encourage this diversity. These members are not wealthy but are loyal to the Adventist beliefs and are faithful tithe payers. Christian education is their dream for their children. They send their children to public schools when they really have no other choice.

In the March 2017 meeting of officers of Adventist colleges and universities, participants discussed some of the issues raised in this document. Richard Hart, Loma Linda University president, in his note to the university staff said that “on the horizon, there are storm clouds that are threatening Adventist institutions of higher education. . . .  Costs and family dynamics are forcing students to look for low-cost community options.”

Two years ago, Atlantic Union College’s Board of Trustees understood that higher education needs a reform and institutions that do not think outside the box will have difficulty surviving. This understanding led to this conclusion: “reform or get out of the way.” It is a great opportunity for AUC to come back into the higher education arena and intentionally design a model that will address some of the issues that are affecting the industry—a process that will be challenging and fraught with setbacks.

Aspects of this educational model include the foollowing:

1. Low Tuition

The Board of Trustees voted to reduce tuition and fees for non-resident students to $11,500 a year. This is more or less equal to what Adventist day academy students pay per year. It is also less than half what students pay on average in other private colleges in North America. The administration is committed to keep the cost low by encouraging faculty and staff to work with a missionary spirit (low salary and carrying heavy responsibilities) and to practice good financial management.

Atlantic Union College can be a debt-free college for students who are willing to look for a job during the school year and, in the summer, seek financial support from family members, and qualify for some institutional scholarships. The life of AUC graduates will be different from those who start with a huge student-loan debt. They can save, buy a car, buy a house, get married, and support church and community projects.

2. Promote Work

Students who work during the school year and the summer can raise approximately $7,000 toward their school bill. This is more than half the annual tuition and fees at AUC. Students are encouraged to look for jobs on and off-campus. Currently, with a low unemployment rate in the country, finding a job off-campus is possible with some searching. Students can work to pay for their education instead of buying a car or other items.

3. Certification Programs

Atlantic Union College is offering short-term certification programs for students who cannot afford a four-year degree program and for working adults who are either under-employed, looking for promotion, or aiming for a career change. These programs are offered Sundays and one or two evenings during the week. They take at maximum one year to complete. Many well-paying jobs are available to those who pass certification exams.

4. College Prep Courses

AUC’s administration recognizes that collaboration with our elementary schools and academies is critical for its success. All are partners in the ministry of saving people. Thus, during the summer, AUC offers college-prep courses in math, reading, and study and writing skills to students going to college in the fall 2017. The cost is free except for course materials and meals. This is a saving of one semester’s cost for students who have to take them in college. This is another way of giving back to the constituency that supports the college.

ACCCREDITATION

The opportunity the college has to start with a clean slate comes with challenges. How do you start a school without accreditation and financial aid/loans in a borrowing culture?

The college administration explored all possible options to be accredited before school started in August 2015. The discussion to get national accreditation with the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) failed when we learned that ACICS may lose its recognition by the U.S. Department of Education. The administration is now preparing the report for eligibility for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). The process will take time.

Certificate programs have partnerships with nationally and internationally recognized organizations that offer certification exams and certificates like Cisco Networking Academy and the American Association of Professional Coders (AAPC). The college also issues its own certificate. Accreditation is not an issue in this area.

Note: Accrediting agencies are not against an institution accepting students from unaccredited schools. It is up to the institution to make that decision when a student wants to transfer.

ARTICULATION AGREEMENT

Meanwhile, the college contacted sister institutions for articulation agreements to facilitate the transfer of students so that they can graduate from an accredited school. So far an articulation agreement has been signed with Southwestern Adventist University in Texas; and hopefully soon, one with Andrews University will be signed. Academic advisers have been working with students to guide them in this process.

AUC is in a situation similar to what many Adventist overseas institutions experienced twenty years ago. They were struggling with low enrollment due to the lack of government recognition. To assist these overseas institutions, Andrews University and Southern Adventist University offered extension programs on those campuses. This support allowed them to get government recognition and build enrollment to the point where they now stand on their own. Today, many of their students are children of influential people including government officials. Articulation agreements with three or four higher education institutions will give AUC time to grow while working on regaining its own accreditation.

Target Audience

Considering the challenges outlined above, our target audience is first and foremost students in the Atlantic Union Conference which has a membership of 120,000. Seventh-day Adventists from outside the Atlantic Union Conference, and non-Adventist students are, of course, also welcome.

Ellen White said:

“I am glad that we have institutions where our youth can be separated from the corrupting influences so prevalent in the schools of the present day. . . . They (students) should be trained to have moral courage to resist the tide of moral pollution in this degenerate age." Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 89

Many families today, especially minorities, prefer to have their children attend a college near their home for a year or two.

To be more specific, our target audience is students who:

a) are majoring in theology/religion or pre-healthcare professions and are willing to spend one to three years at AUC and then transfer to partner institutions with which we have an articulation agreement.

b) prefer to study a year or two at AUC to complete their general education courses and then transfer to a partner institution to continue courses in their major.

c) cannot afford college education for now and want a short-term certification in one of the areas offered in our professional certificate program. These students can return to college to earn a college degree while working and earning a good salary.

STARTING A SMALL BUSINESS

It is well known that any new business starts small and expects to operate in the red for two to three years. Meanwhile, the owner works really hard to build the business by getting new customers/clients. We started with small enrollment numbers. Time is needed for the College to increase enrollment, change the culture of borrowing, and restore the value of working to pay for college.

We struggled at the beginning and are still struggling, but we are really working hard recruiting students and changing the paradigm of parents and prospective students.

The 2015-16 fiscal year (our first year in operation) ended in the black, a small deficit is projected in the second year (2016-17).

The 2016-20 Strategic Plan is available for anyone interested in knowing more about the college.

CONCLUSION

The economic situation of the country and the demographic shift of the Seventh-day Adventist Church reveal that the majority of college students in Adventist institutions are from low-income, first-generation homes. This calls for educational cost reduction, offering more scholarships, and a serious examination of institutional expenditures.

Southern New England Conference has been a strong supporter of AUC’s students’ three-way scholarships and subsidy. There is no doubt that the conference and the college are all working for the best interest of our students, but for some reason, we have different strategies to achieve this goal. There is a disconnect somewhere. An honest and sincere dialogue to identify the differences is yet to happen. We hope to have one soon.

Meanwhile our appeal to the conference is to continue the financial support of our efforts to provide quality and affordable Christian education in the northeast.

If there is a time Atlantic Union College is needed, it is NOW.

 

Issumael Nzamutuma is Vice President for Academic Affairs at Atlantic Union College.

 

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