Every week or so, John Mark Reynolds does something that presidents of academic institutions rarely do: He cleans his office at Saint Constantine School.

This isn’t a symbolic gesture in an age of ominous trends — and now, a global pandemic — that threaten private education. Reynolds always takes his turn, with other members of his team, cleaning administration offices at this classical school in Houston.

“We have no administrators who are just administrators. Everyone teaches. Everyone shares many of the jobs that need to get done,” said Reynolds, reached at his sheltering-in-place home office. “We have a maintenance team, but we all help out. The first lady and I plan to water some plants later today. ...

“We call this the economy of small.”

Saint Constantine is a K-16 Orthodox Christian school, which means it offers four years of college credits. College tuition is $9,000 per year.

“Our whole model was created to survive the collapse of liberal arts education, while striving to preserve the core of liberal arts education through an Oxford-style tutorial system,” said Reynolds. “This pandemic is only exposing the weaknesses of what was already a business model fraught with peril.”

College educators have long known that painful challenges were coming in 2025, due to falling birth rates and the end of high millennial-generation enrollments.

Now, the coronavirus crisis is forcing students and parents to face troubling realities. A study by McKinsey & Company researchers noted: “Hunkering down at home with a laptop ... is a world away from the rich on-campus life that existed in February.”

What happens next? The study noted: “In the virus-recurrence and pandemic-escalation scenarios, higher-education institutions could see much less predictable yield rates (the percentage of those admitted who attend) if would-be first-year students decide to take a gap year or attend somewhere closer to home (and less costly) because of the expectation of longer-term financial challenges for their families.”

This could crush some schools. In a report entitled “Dawn of the Dead,” Forbes found 675 private colleges it labeled “so-called tuition-dependent schools — meaning they squeak by year after year, often losing money or eating into their dwindling endowments.” While it’s hard to probe private-school finances, Forbes said a “significant number” of weaker schools are “nearly insolvent.”

Nevertheless, leaders at faith-based schools still hope many students — after being pushed into online education this semester — will value the “strong community expectations and experiences” found on these campuses, said Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.

There’s no question educators face hard times, she said. At the moment, the CCCU and other private-education networks are working on Capitol Hill, seeking the kind of financial aid that is flowing to other sectors of America’s economy.

But the future depends on continued support from churches and families.

Nevertheless, the landscape of American education is changing. Private schools will not be able to “grow their way” out of the demographic, financial and legal challenges ahead, said Reynolds, who is best known as founder of the Torrey Honors Institute, a great-books program at Biola University outside Los Angeles.

It’s too late for administrators to raise enrollments “by adding on academic programs that have little to do with their school’s mission, but pull in tuition dollars that help keep them afloat. Then they have to repeat that process over and over and hope that it keeps working,” he said. “Those days are over.”

Educators need to ask if they continue to serve the believers who support them and the needs of their local communities, while offering an educational approach that is affordable.

“Lots of people need to change and get smaller, which means they will have to make hard choices,” said Reynolds. “They will have to decide what they are going to do and why they are going to do it. They will have to stand for something. ...

“This isn’t what people in higher education want to hear. But these issues are not going to go away.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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