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A Crossroads in Adventist Education: Our Next Steps

Andrea Luxton speaking at podium.

Higher education is in tumult across the nation, and Adventist universities are no exception. They face troubling enrollment numbers, financial turmoil, critics, and doubters. Andrea Luxton, former president of Andrews University, has recently taken on roles within the North American Division as the associate director for higher education and the executive director of the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities. She discussed some of these challenges, as well as some of the possible roads forward, in a recent conversation with Spectrum.

Education in Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic threw many of the troubles facing higher education into stark relief. In addition to the obvious difficulties faced during the era of quarantines and masking, Luxton believes we have yet to understand the long-term impact the pandemic will have on the educational system. 

Administrators at both secular and Adventist institutions report similar problems: low morale, salary reductions, job losses, and overworked staff members. Luxton notes that students are facing increased anxiety and rising dropout rates—troubling news at a time when enrollment numbers are already a significant worry. 

Fortunately, preliminary data suggests that enrollment is finally up this fall. Luxton notes that the broader societal demographics are still working against enrollment statistics, but the recent uptick is a sign for optimism. She also points out that day academies continue to do well. Furthermore, figures for this academic year show a significant increase across the pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 school system—another potential sign of future stability in enrollment statistics at the undergraduate level. 

A Shifting Demographic

Luxton argues that another part of the problem stems from broader demographic shifts in the church. Boarding academies, for example, have reduced in numbers over recent years. As traditionally important feeders for universities, this shrinkage has been viewed as a negative sign of things to come. Upwards of two-thirds of Adventist students are now attending public school or are homeschooled. However, data on these potential prospective students is often incomplete.

Where that data is missing, information on broader changes in the church’s population can fill in the gaps. For example, first-generation Adventists and first-generation Americans are often unacquainted with the higher education opportunities offered by church institutions. Luxton suggests that these populations, who may be less visible in data collections, represent a large potential market for Adventist institutions.

Traditionally, many Adventist campuses have focused on recruiting from day and boarding academies. One way the NAD believes they can reach new populations is by shifting recruitment efforts toward church communities. But this practice raises other concerns about how to market to these new communities. Luxton notes that churches often do not want to see their young people leave home. “There is a strong sense of family identity,” Luxton says, that “keep[s] people close together, close to family where there is that sense of home and security.”

Addressing these concerns, Luxton says, starts with fostering an attitude of partnership. “How do we encourage pastors and local churches to help their members understand what is available to them? The pastors and the churches have to see us as partners.” This can be difficult when there is a fear that, as Luxton puts it, “Adventism there is not like the Adventism here.” She argues that this can lead to sheltering young people due to “a lack of trust that somebody else actually might have the same visions and goals that you have.”

Another difficult challenge, especially for this new demographic, is paying for the cost of tuition. Difficult financial realities are hitting campuses across the United States, but the Adventist sector possesses a unique advantage in the support it receives from the church. Although Luxton believes that further analysis on church giving is needed, a significant percentage of monetary support does go toward student scholarships. That support helps ease the burden of tuition by reducing the cost of specific majors, supporting student initiatives, and allowing access to resources relating to spiritual life.

Competition Versus Collaboration

Unfortunately, Luxton notes that church support is “very uneven depending on where each institution is within the country. So some places are going to find it much more difficult.” This means that students have uneven access to church resources based on their location. To some extent, this is a result of church structure, which affects the arrangement of its educational institutions. Because of this, financial support for students is not a guarantee and institutions are often forced to compete against one another to improve enrollment numbers. 

“The way the universities are set up makes it extremely difficult to put collaboration over competition,” Luxton says, “so that deepens some of the financial issues that are attached to the current situation.” Each union, with a few exceptions, has its own campus, she outlines. The board makeup of each institution consists of ex officio union and conference presidents. Thus, the structure incentivizes each university and their constituent unions and conferences to support their home institutions. “That doesn’t mean they’re against [each other],” Luxton explains, “but their first loyalty is to the institutions that they put money into and they feel they have more control over.” 

As a result, potential solutions to these broader problems, she says, “are more complicated because the structure of the church operates against some of the models that would help.” Luxton feels that instead of attempting to change deeply entrenched church structures, the way forward is more likely to lie in deepening collaborative relationships.

The Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities was founded in 2001/2002 to replace “competition with the spirit of collaboration.” Too often, collaboration depends entirely on the time-specific priorities of a given university administration. Organizations like the AACU seek to make collaboration more permanent and effective among the NAD’s thirteen higher education institutions. As Luxton puts it, her role is to “keep bringing people around the table and putting options on the table,” creating win-win situations that benefit all parties. With changing demographics in the Adventist Church, Luxton believes that “there’s enough students out there, enough people out there, that all thirteen institutions could be successful.”

Sharing Alternative Revenue Streams

Another potential arena for greater collaboration is in the development and sharing of alternative revenue streams. Most institutions of higher education, Luxton says, are recognizing that they cannot rely solely on tuition as their main source of income. As a result, many are turning to different ventures for increasing revenue. Some campuses, for instance, are starting businesses in farming, real estate, or hospitality. Others are opening innovation centers that provide students with resources that support entrepreneurship. In some cases, these centers also operate as incubators, providing early seed funding in exchange for partial ownership—if one or more student venture(s) take off, it could result in additional funding for the institution where they got their start.

Collaborating on such efforts could mean a greater return for all those involved. One current initiative joins seven Adventist campuses together to provide professional workplace certificates for fields that require extra documentation to obtain a job, such as IT and healthcare. Participating institutions each contributed a certain sum of money to the program, and all share in the revenue generated from student registrations. The benefit to students is that enrollment at any one participating campus allows them to register for certificates at all of the other participating campuses as well. 

Multiplying Charitable Giving

The workplace certification initiative was made possible in part by donors, whose gifts will now continue to produce revenue in the future. Working with donors to expand the potential applications of charitable giving—with a specific aim of developing alternative revenue streams—is another way campuses could develop financial resiliency. Utilizing a more deliberate approach could multiply donations and yield benefits well after, and far outweighing, the initial gift. 

Traditionally, large donors have provided funds for initiatives like building projects—certainly necessary and valuable contributions. But Luxton sees an opportunity for donations to fund innovative projects at the endowment level. As an example, she mentions the possibility of Revolving Loan Funds—whether for student loans, innovation projects, or development projects—as an opportunity to improve campus sustainability. Although just one example, the project points to a variety of potential solutions that could result from a more creative approach to charitable giving.

Investing in Educators

A sole focus on increasing enrollment and developing new revenue streams neglects the other unique aspect that provides institutions of higher education their value: their employees. One of the perennial problems in Adventist higher education is the non-competitive salaries for faculty and staff. While all institutions have had to reckon with national trends that have hindered growth in wages, Adventist campuses continue to lag behind. Luxton admits it’s a significant and pernicious problem.

Partly to blame is the historical understanding that teaching in the Adventist educational system necessitates some amount of self-sacrifice. The success that Adventist campuses have had in attracting high-quality educators have been largely due to a strong belief in the value of Adventist higher education. “I’m amazed over the years at how much quality talent we have been able to pull,” Luxton says. “And I think it’s because of a vision for being part of something prospective faculty believe in. I think that’s why we often get young, quite brilliant, faculty that could go to many places, but they choose to come to an Adventist campus.” But, she emphasizes, this vision should not be an excuse for keeping salaries low.

One way to invest in these educators, Luxton suggests, is through endowing faculty positions. Faculty endowments ease operational expenses and do more than just cover salaries, providing various resources and funding research projects. However, the complexity of the factors at play—within the Adventist sector, higher education, and the economy at large—means that solving stagnant wages remains an open question. As campuses contemplate how best to continue attracting talented faculty, valuing faculty and staff must be reinterpreted in new and creative ways.

A Global Community

Greater collaboration and innovative approaches to giving must also come with a renewed appreciation for the global Adventist community, Luxton notes. One of the values of Adventist higher education, she says, is the opportunity to learn within a diverse student body—one that could only be possible within a truly global church community. This network, forged by shared values, provides another arena for potential solutions within higher education. Already, Luxton sees that graduates have benefited from the cosmopolitan environment found on Adventist campuses. What more might be done to extend this advantage? 

One possibility is to strengthen connections between lay members across the world who seek talented young people for their businesses and the students on Adventist campuses looking for just such opportunities. Thinking in these terms makes the otherwise airy phrase, “investing in people,” seem more meaningful and concrete. The primary resource that provides value to any institution of higher education is its people. If renewed appreciation can be fostered for the global Adventist community, it could generate creative new interpretations for what it means to invest in people.   

Making the World a Better Place

As institutions work to address these problems, Adventist theology can become a guiding principle. Luxton hopes that, in her new roles, she can foster a sense of excitement about the unique possibilities that Adventist higher education offers. She recognizes that critics have cast suspicion on the system due to a disbelief that educators share the same mission of Adventism that they hold. This assumption has hurt many campuses, and she views it as a misunderstanding of the system's aims. “Higher education, by its very nature, should allow people to explore questions,” she says. “If faith and doctrine have validity and value, they stand up to questions. We shouldn’t be afraid of questions. And as we explore questions and answers and consider what our theological uniqueness means daily to how we live and learn, Adventist mission can be strengthened.”

Adventist higher education, she points out, has excelled at producing graduates interested in making the world a better place. “There’s a tension in Adventist theology [between] a belief in a second coming and looking at making the world a better place now,” she says. “As I look at the Gospels, Jesus was very much about the world now as well as the world to come.” Luxton recalls a time while she was president at Burman University when government accreditors came to campus to evaluate a new program. After their visit, they expressed how impressed they were that every single campus offering was consciously oriented toward making the world a better place. “That is something that is intrinsic to us that we may not have talked about as much,” she says, “but we do do it.”

As institutions consider policies to solve the problems ahead, they must also consider how a deeper understanding of Adventist theology can guide the way. As Luxton notes, it’s the difference between “a view of Adventist doctrine which is just purely a statement of facts and texts [versus] something which becomes a way of being and living that turns out to be part of you.” Finding that heart, as she puts it, and creating a new way of being, “is the human piece, it’s the character piece, which is the important part, and the difficult one.”


Jeremy Gray is adjunct faculty at Andrews University and a correspondent for Spectrum.

Title image by the Adventist Media Exchange.

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