Undergraduate students at EMU do informal Bible study in a dorm room, a scene that would be familiar to alumni from past generations. “Mennonite colleges and universities not only offer course credits and degrees, we provide transformational opportunities for our students to fully discover themselves and their place in God’s mission in the world,” says Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, vice president of admissions and financial aid at Hesston College in Kansas. (Photo by Molly Kraybill)

The Cost of, and Returns on, a Mennonite Higher Education

The first two sentences, set in large font, on the financial aid page of Hesston (Kan.) College’s website cut right to the chase: “Let’s be clear, college is expensive. There’s really no way to dance around it.”

Concern over college affordability in the United States is nothing new. The inflation-adjusted average annual cost of tuition, room and board for the country’s colleges and universities has more than doubled over the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

While the cost of attendance has actually been increasing faster at public universities over the past decade, private institutions are in general still more expensive. The National Center for Education Statistics puts the average annual cost of tuition, room and board at private, not-for-profit American universities at $36,300 for the 2010-2011 academic year.

While the Mennonite Church USA-affiliated colleges and universities aren’t quite that pricey, they’re not cheap either. According to online “sticker price” figures, the average full cost of attendance this year at the five colleges/universities is $33,714. (The full cost of a 90-credit hour M.Div. degree from the two Mennonite Church USA-affiliated seminaries is currently just over $41,000.)

Price or best fit?

“Higher education as a whole has had to defend its worth and value in today’s society,” says Jason Good, director of retention at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Va. “We see more and more students making their choice based on price instead of what’s a best fit for them.”

When it comes to paying for an education, however, officials at Mennonite educational institutions note that scholarships and financial aid almost always mean that the actual cost of a student’s education will be less than the sticker price.

Dan Koop Liechty, director of admissions at Goshen (Ind.) College, notes that cost and affordability decisions are best made after prospective students have applied, been admitted and received financial assistance packages. At this point, students can make decisions based on the bottom-line cost of their educations, which are often much more comparable to attending a public institution than it first appears.

Directly related to the price of higher education is the issue of student debt, which has also been increasing. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 2011 graduates who borrowed to finance their educations finished with an average debt load of $26,600. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, some consider this an unreasonable burden to place on graduates entering an uncertain job market. Others characterize it as a reasonable investment—about the cost of a new Toyota Prius—that sets college graduates on the path to a much larger payoff.

College degree as an investment

“It’s not debt that you’re using to buy consumables and putting on a credit card with a 21-percent interest rate,” says Ron Headings, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Bluffton (Ohio) University. “It’s buying you a college degree.”

Headings adds that with prior planning and hard work during college—to maintain academic scholarships as well as earn income—students and their families can find it “fairly easy to get out of Bluffton University debt-free.”

Cost and debt aside, getting a college degree clearly remains a smart financial investment for young adults. While estimates vary, many sources now place the average increase in earnings over a 40-year career at or near $1 million compared to workers without a college degree.

Furthermore, faculty, staff and alumni of the five colleges and universities say a degree from one isn’t just any garden-variety bachelor’s degree.

Engaged profs, small classes

“At a larger school, many of the foundational classes are taught by teaching assistants,” says Matthew Schmidt, a 1994 graduate of Bethel College, North Newton, Kan. “At Bethel you have full professors teaching these same classes.”

Schmidt, who lives in Newton, Kan., and is interim director of a clinic providing health services to medically underserved populations, says the small class sizes at Bethel created an interactive environment ideal for collaborative learning.

Additionally, engaged faculty invested in students’ well-being and emphases on critical thinking and cross-cultural skills prepare them particularly well for the future.

Strong outcomes

Two of many indications are these:

• From 2006 to 2010, 91 percent of EMU graduates who applied to medical school were accepted, almost double the national acceptance rate of 46 percent.

• At Bethel, 95 percent of social work graduates pass their licensing exams on the first attempt, compared with a national pass rate of 78 percent.

“In a rapidly changing and highly specialized job market, a liberal arts college degree provides an essential foundation for the basic skills that are needed in a dynamic economic environment,” says John D. Roth, the author of Teaching that Transforms: Why Anabaptist-Mennonite Education Matters and a professor of history at Goshen College. “So education at Goshen College is ‘worth it’ for straightforward economic reasons alone.”

But the financial case for the value of a Mennonite college, university or seminary education only tells part of the story.

Education that transforms

Back on the Hesston College financial aid page: “The key is to think of [education] in terms of value. While the cost of college may initially be a bit of a shock, step back, take a deep breath and think about the experiences and lifelong advantages a Hesston education provides.” This appeal to the value of a Mennonite education is an extremely important part of the argument.

“As Anabaptists, we are part of a tradition that measures worth in more than monetary terms,” says Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, vice president of admissions and financial aid at Hesston. “Mennonite colleges and universities not only offer course credits and degrees, we provide transformational opportunities for our students to fully discover themselves and their place in God’s mission in the world.”

Graduates of these schools frequently point to impossible-to-quantify personal growth as one of the most important parts of their educations there.

“Attending Goshen College was a seminal time in my development,” says Peter Eash-Scott, a 1999 graduate, now a stay-at-home dad in Newton “It probably is one of the most influential things that has informed who I am, what I value and who I strive to be.”

Shared, reinforced values

Spending four years in a learning environment surrounded by people who held similar values, Eash-Scott adds, provided “a safe place to explore my faith and challenge my understanding of God, myself and the faith community,” both in and out of the classroom.

Close, caring relationships between students and faculty often are another important aspect of an education at a Mennonite institution.

“The faculty and staff here are part of our community,” says Clark Oswald, associate director of admissions at Bethel. “We care for our neighbors. That’s something as Mennonites that we learn in church growing up, and at Bethel we do that. … There’s just kind of this underlying sense of ‘we’re in this together.’ ”

Michelle Roth-Cline, a 2000 graduate of EMU, called the mentoring role of faculty “absolutely invaluable.” Now a pediatric ethicist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Roth-Cline says her education at EMU prepared her for medical school as well as her classmates coming from Ivy League and other prestigious schools. At the same time, what she learned about building relationships has served her equally well.

Learning to care for people

I learned more about how to care for other people at EMU than I did in medical school. Simply knowing how to care for other people in this way has opened all kinds of doors both personally and professionally that I never would have imagined possible when I was choosing a college,” Roth-Cline says.

Leah Roeschley, a 2011 graduate of Bluffton, says her education there set the stage for her own spiritual growth. The opportunity to explore Mennonite faith and spirituality, combined with “space to ask questions [and] space to access and receive counsel” allows students to “claim a faith that is truly their own,” she says.

“My Mennonite education was worth it because my college experience was bracketed with values that resonated with me,” says Roeschley, a registered dietitian in Bloomington, Ill. “Those values were in the background of everything I did at Bluffton. … I left not only fully equipped for the field of dietetics, but I also left with … a deeper understanding of who I was.”

A related role played by Mennonite higher education is the development of future church leaders and members.

Developing leaders

There is strong and long-standing research that shows that students who graduate from a Mennonite college are far more likely to participate after college in a Mennonite congregation, our denominational service agencies and leadership positions in the denominational structures. Mennonite higher education is not only a great value for students, we are of great value to our denomination,” says Koop Liechty, the admissions director at Goshen.

Laura Amstutz, director of admissions at Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS), says that study at a Mennonite seminary puts Anabaptist “theology, history, polity and biblical understandings” at the center of the curriculum. At a non-Mennonite school, she adds, these topics—key in the development of church leaders—would often be relegated to electives.

Ron Guengerich, a 1974 graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), says his education gave him a lifelong love of scholarship and the church while bringing the Bible alive as “a challenging and transforming ‘word.’ ” Now the pastor of Silverwood Mennonite Church in Goshen, he says he left well prepared for work within the church and eager to continue advanced study of the Old Testament.

Given the relatively low pay offered to people entering church leadership and ministry positions, Amstutz says EMS is concerned with the growing cost of attendance and believes all levels of the denomination need to “find ways to help support students financially.”

There is also a converse question of worth to consider: What would be the price of not having strong educational institutions?

“It’s impossible to put a money value on effective and visionary leadership for the church,” says Sara Wenger Shenk, president of AMBS. “Most of us don’t get it that healthy communities thrive … because they have compassionate, competent and confident leaders.”

Building community

“Thank God for those who remember that the cost of ignorance and immaturity given full sway in local congregations is far greater than an investment in those who are ready to become masters of the craft,” she says.

According to those interviewed for this article, the sum of an educational experience at a Mennonite educational institution is greater than its individual parts, with academic growth and personal development building upon and informing each other.

“We feel very strongly about our value and the high quality of education that we provide to our students,” says Good. His statement is echoed by his counterparts at other institutions. “At EMU, students receive an education in which they are challenged to move beyond their comfort zone, to think critically about the world around them, to strengthen their core values and beliefs and to be leaders and forces for change and justice in their communities.”

Courtesy The Mennonite, Jan. 1, 2013