October 14, 2009

Are We Killing Adventist Education?

In this excerpt from his provocative new book, How to Kill Adventist Education (and How to Give It a Fighting Chance), Review and Herald Publishing Association (2009), pastor and educator Shane Anderson offers his prescriptions for increasing the enrollment and influence of Adventist schools from preschool to university.--Editors

How We Didn’t Quite
Get Into This Mess

2009 1529 page16 caphen fixing a problem, it’s helpful to know not merely what it is, but what caused it. So let’s look at a vital question: What brought Advent­ist education into the difficulties it currently faces?

When I have asked concerned Adventists this question, they give a fairly limited range of answers, such as the following:

“I don’t know.”

“Parents just aren’t committed to Adventist institutions anymore.”

“Adventist education is too expensive.”

“We don’t market our schools effectively enough. If more people knew about them, they would be thriving.”

The trouble with such answers is twofold. First, they are usually followed by conversations that are lamentably short. A bit of speculation followed by a moving on to other subjects seems to satisfy our limited curiosity on the topic (or perhaps our fatalism sees further conversation as pointless). Second, while these answers all contain elements of helpful truth (with the possible excep­tion of the first example), they don’t grasp the true depth of the problem. Let’s take a moment to analyze each of the last three answers briefly.

The Death of Brand Loyalty
Take the idea of declining commitment to Adventist institutions. In days past, Adventists often took pride in their highly developed subculture (though we rarely put it in those terms). We had our own publications, our own traditions (popcorn and fruit at sundown on Sabbath), and of course, our own schools. In addition, we even had our own manufacturing facilities that produced choice morsels of food that no self-respecting Adventist potluck would be without. With only a little tongue in cheek, we could loudly proclaim that “our hope is built on nothing less than
Worthington and Pacific Press.”

2009 1529 page16But today there is little doubt that the heady days of Adventist brand loyalty are becoming a thing of the past. Many Adventists understand this intuitively already, but I’ll share just one example of this trend in action to illustrate.

According to Harold Lee, former president of the Columbia Union Conference, a comparative study between Adventists and 28 other Protestant denominations reveals that “members are giving [money] far less today than in the past. In 1968 giving was at 10.8 percent of after-tax income. By 1996 it had declined to 4.5 percent. This decline represents a 58 percent decrease in the portion of income being given by church members. . . . Church members are voting with their feet and with their dollars.”1

This leads to the obvious conclusion that Adventists are increasingly spending less and less to purchase Adventist “products”--educational or otherwise. How come?

Too often-particularly among older members-the response is simply that we aren’t as loyal to Adventist institutions as we ought to be . . . as though that were a complete answer in itself. Far too often, members and education leaders that I have personally talked with in various portions of the United States have repeatedly retreated to this simplistic explanation, almost as though it were still 1955 and that institutional loyalty was still a widely held, finely tuned, and much-lauded part of the Adventist mind-set.

But it simply is not! Dedication to the “Adventist brand” is waning heav­ily . . . and the problems with Adventist education go much deeper than a mere dearth of institutional loyalty. In fact, flagging enthusiasm for Seventh-day Adventist “brands” is not a core cause of Adventist educational decline, but rather another symptom of it (albeit an important one).

Think of it this way: Do we really believe that there are large numbers of passionate, highly committed Seventh-day Adventists-who also just happen to think that a school that would teach their children that that very same Adventism is not worth considering? Of course not. Surely what we’re seeing here is a lack of commitment not just to our schools or other institutions, but to Adventism itself. Here is the core of our current crisis (as we will discuss further shortly).

Please note that I’m not saying that if you send your kids to non-Adventist schools, you’re not an Adventist. But I am most certainly declaring that we currently have large numbers of baptized Seventh-day Adventists--paid clergy and laity--who, while they think much of Christ and His grace, don’t have much regard for Adventist claims to having a unique mission in the world. Furthermore, Adventism has spent much of the past two decades attempting to move itself into mainstream Western culture, and in so doing Adventism’s reason for being has been, in my opinion, clouded--and thus, unavoidably, its educational system has been obscured as well. Again, more on this in chapter 2 and subsequent chapters.

Too Costly?
What about the common thought that Adventist education is too expensive?

Certainly Adventist education is far from tree (in some cases, exceedingly far). And, as we saw earlier, there exists a definite trend away from spending money on church-related institutions, one that certainly contributes both directly and indirectly to the perceptions of educational cost.

But the trouble with claiming high expense as a major reason for educational decline is that, depending on the school in question, such a claim can be answered correctly both “no, it’s not too expensive” and “yes, it is too expensive.” Here’s how such a thing can be so:

Let’s take the “no, it’s not too expensive” crowd first. Proponents of Adventist education have often answered the charge of being overpriced with sound financial information to the contrary. They point out, for instance, that their particular Adventist school teaches Adventist values both by example and verbal instruction. For committed Adventists, this is of immense importance. Additionally, proponents note that if we also think in terms of above-average academics as well as extracurricular activities (cultural field trips, sports, advanced classes for qualified students, etc.) at their school, the “inexpensiveness” of Adventist education becomes even more apparent. They further point out that there is precious little financial profit-if any-built into the tuition and fees of Adventist schools-parents are paying for what they’re getting, and often at a price that approaches bargain status.

This can be doubly true when one compares certain facets of Adventist schools to their public school counterparts. Many of our teachers, for instance--particularly long-tenured or postsecondary teachers--receive markedly lower wages in comparison to their peers in the public school system. (Translation: Those high tuition bills aren’t there to make our teachers rich!) Or consider this: In some of the areas in which I’ve been associated with our schools, the expense required to educate one student in an Adventist school has been significantly lower than that required in the area public schools. Of course, Adventist parents, even though they may send their kids to Adventist schools, still have to pay local and state taxes. But the cost comparison between the two systems is nonetheless helpful in shedding light on the relative affordability of many of our schools.

All this adds up to the conclusion that when compared to other types of schools, Adventist institutions are often reasonably priced for what’s being offered. (I remember the story of one of our most expensive academies being visited by some non-Adventist parents to see if their child might attend there. When they heard the price of tuition, they immediately and in complete seriousness asked, “What’s wrong with your school?” They couldn’t imagine how a quality Christian education could be so comparatively inexpensive.)

So based on what their school offers, these proponents argue that while Adventist education is not what we would call cheap, their particular school is reasonably priced when viewed within an Adventist values, academic, and extracurricular activity perspective.

Are they correct?

Probably so--again, for their particular school. And at the very least, such testimony ought to be good incentive for parents to take a second look at the perceived “over-priced-ness” of their school’s tuition. It may be that upon inspection of the alternatives, they will find that Adventist school to be a relative bargain instead of a bank-busting lemon of an education.

But what about the “yes, it is too expensive” crowd? Can they too be correct in their assessment of Adventist education? They can, and in at least four ways.

First, for those church members not overly concerned about propagat­ing Adventist values to their children, Adventist education does indeed appear overly expensive. It simply offers a product they are not interested in, and they will instead choose a good Christian school (usually closer to home geographically) or a quality public school.

Second, there are what we might call the “moderately committed” Adventists who want to send their children to Adventist school, but only if it’s conveniently priced. They truly like their church and want their children to grow to share that affection through Adventist education, but only as long as it’s relatively easy to do so within their perceived budgetary constraints.

I say “perceived budgetary constraints” because while this particular type of Adventist truly likes their church, they are often also fond of their Jet Skis, SUV s, and big-screen TVs. And when push comes to shove, the toys win out over tuition. Thus, for them, school tuition is indeed too expensive.

(Allow me a brief sermon here. I am not saying it is of necessity a sin to have the toys. Abraham, as I recall, was lavishly wealthy and had the hardware to prove it. But I am saying that hedonism and selfishness may be coming to play far too great a role among some Adventists when it comes to making educational choices for their kids. And if Adventists profess affection for their church and then send their children to non-Adventist schools because it’s “just too expensive” to do otherwise-all the while pouring large chunks of money into fun toys that will nonetheless burn when Jesus returns--then perhaps it’s time for a little honesty. Big tuition bills may not be the problem. Instead it may be misplaced priorities, which leads to the obvious question: Which is more important in the scope of eternity? The toys/ cars/house/ etc.? Or potentially eternal life for one’s kids? True, Adventist education can’t guarantee that one’s children will be in heaven. But in the spirituality department, it’ll blow our jet skis into the weeds nearly every time.)

Third, even for Adventists who are heavily committed to their God and their church, there is absolutely no doubt that while Adventist education may be a relative bargain for what you get in return, it can still cost a ton of money! Ten to 18 thousand dollars for a year at our boarding academies, for instance, is the norm. And that’s for a high school, not a college education! For lower- and middle-income families, that price tag can be a real challenge to meet. (And speaking of high school! college tuition parity, a parent recently remarked to me what a relief it would be to have their student go to James Madison University, a nationally respected school in central Virginia. The reason for that relief? The yearly tuition would be a mere $6,000 per year--about $11,000 less than that charged for a boarding student at the Adventist academy their daughter was graduating from!)

Keen observers will note that some non-Adventist schools (such as the aforementioned JamesMadisonUniversity) have some financial resources--big endowments, eligibility for certain grants--that we don’t have and thus we can’t be expected to offer their (in some instances) lower prices. Granted. But ultimately that may be beside the point. The bottom line still is that Adventist education, even for the dedicated lower-to-middle income member, is becoming very highly priced indeed. And if the trend of increasing tuition continues, and we do not come up with commensurate financial aid re­sources, we may not only price ourselves out of the market, we may also eliminate all but the very well-heeled.

2009 1529 page16Fourth and last, for those parents who are deeply concerned about passing on Adventist values, Adventist education too often is also deemed too expensive for them . . . because the particular school they’re looking at isn’t particularly Adventist. Whether it’s a fuzzy focus on Christ or a lack of emphasis on the unique mission, values, and standards of Adventism, in my experience many of our schools lack a sufficiently Adventist flavor, and Adventist parents increasingly aren’t willing to pay the price to send their kids to such institutions.

And no wonder such parents are concerned! At the risk of stating the obvious, Adventist education should seek to achieve a goal far greater than superior academics, outstanding extracurricular activities, or even superior character development, as important as all these may be. It should seek to establish in our children a personal relationship with Jesus Christ so that they may be lifelong Seventh-day Adventist witnesses for Him. And if that unique goal is absent, devout Adventist parents rightly look at high tuition prices and deem correctly that they are indeed too expensive! The “Adventist flavor” issue is vital, and we will discuss it more shortly.

Obviously the question of the price of tuition is a major concern when discerning the causes of Adventist educational decline. We’ll explore ways to deal with this in chapter 18.

Are We Poorly Marketed?
What about the idea that inferior marketing accounts for a large share of our schools’ demise?

I mean no harm when I say that in my experience, many of our schools (and churches, for that matter), while not intentionally so, are not experts in presenting themselves to their communities. Most school leaders understandably are not marketing professionals and may lack the money, time, and other resources to become marketing-savvy.

But that said, let’s be certain that we understand whom we feel that we are missing through a lack of marketing skill. Almost always, when I’ve heard Adventists calling for better promotion of our schools, the goal is to try to reach non-Adventists--an intriguing focus given our recent “marketing history.”

Most people would agree that the promotional programs of many of our schools today, challenged though they are, are in many ways an im­provement when compared to those of the schools of the 1970s and 1980s. In those days mass mailings, community focus groups, demographic studies, niche marketing techniques, etc., were not high on most of our schools to-do lists. But here’s the irony: While Adventist education is struggling today, on the whole it was thriving 20 and 30 years ago--a time when our marketing efforts were supposedly inferior. Why did we thrive back then, even with subpar marketing approaches?

It is not because of some mysterious magnetism that we had in the 1970s and 1980s (though I’ve always thought that those big-hair and polyester pants pictures on our brochures from that era did have a certain magnetism about them . . . ), but rather something much more mundane that we discussed earlier in this chapter: Adventists of that time naturally filled our schools. It’s just what we as Adventists did (though most did not do so mindlessly--they had a reason for their choice, as we’ll explore later). Adventist parents had Ad­ventist kids who enrolled in Adventist schools.

But today they don’t--certainly not in the numbers they did in the past. And since most schools often aren’t sure why they don’t, they can’t pursue those Adventists with the proper enticements. So we have instead turned to marketing to non-Adventists. “If we can just get the word out about the great things going on at our school, non-Adventist parents will be much more likely to send their kids to our school,” we say. And certainly some non-Adventist students would come to our schools if they were properly marketed to.

But not many.

I wish I could say otherwise, but experience is a good teacher, and with very few exceptions,2 my observation has been that even the best of marketing to non-Adventists rarely yields the results we crave. The scenario I’ve encountered usually runs something like this. An Adventist school gets another drop in enrollment. The board convenes and determines that marketing to the community is the answer. After much thought and many late nights, they have a stack of shiny, high-quality brochures printed up. They form a plan of attack, with the principal and/or board members setting up meetings with various community leaders, students doing door-to-door work, etc.--all in an effort to get the word out about the legitimately great things going on at that Adventist school.

And then . . . few--if any--from the community sign up the next school year. The principal is frustrated, the school is out a chunk of change, and the enrollment continues its downward slide.

And why don’t those community families register their kids after seeing our shiny brochures and hearing our heartfelt spiels? There are a number of reasons, but right near the top is that we Adventists are unique--and, in the eyes if many non-Adventists, downright strange. For instance, we go to church on the “wrong” day; we belong to a comparatively small but growing” cult”; and we seem to enjoy substantial amounts of vegetarian food (though I have learned that this last point was not nearly so weird in Seattle as it is in my current home in rural Virginia). And non-Adventist, Sundaygoing (and non-Sundaygoing), mainstream, carnivorous parents generally sense this strangeness and are accordingly cautious. They understand that schools tend to teach values that last a lifetime. And so they rightly ask: “Do we want our children to become Adventists?” A reasonable chance of that happening exists if their kids go to an Adventist school. So these parents are careful and, in my experience, rarely choose to come to our schools in any significant numbers. Our schools in this sense (and, I should add, in the North American Division) are not generally the community-targeting evangelistic powerhouses that some have imagined them to be.

(I must point out that this is not to say that I agree with the tired old saw that declares, “Adventist churches are small and should be because we have a unique message.” I do not believe this, and as far as local congregations are concerned, we need to learn that our uniqueness is our best calling card when it comes to public and personal evangelism. But I hasten to add that there is a vastly different dynamic that occurs in a local church as compared to that which occurs in a local church school. At the church the parents are usually the guests who are checking Adventism out, then--if the parents give the all-clear--the children may possibly follow. But at the local school, while the parent may do some initial scouting out of things, it’s the child who’s day in, day out being exposed to a new and potentially contagious religion--and that reality is simply more than most non-Adventist parents are willing to experiment with. Church? Often, yes. School? Usually no.)

So what to do?

In my opinion, marketing to non-Adventists should be done, but only as extra time and money allow. Instead, we should spend the bulk of our time promoting to (drum roll, please) Adventists. After all, there are tens of thousands of Adventist student-aged kids--the ones who would most naturally come to our schools--who already know that our schools exist and still do not attend.

They do not attend for a variety of reasons, and in a bit we’ll talk about some possible ways to overcome those. But I’ll spill the beans some now and say that most of the time Adventist education and in particular its benefits are grossly undercommunicated to our members. Putting an ad in the union paper can be affirming for the already-convinced,3 but it just doesn’t cut it for most “nonenrolling” Adventists when it comes to being convinced of the necessity of Adventist education. Much more is required, and until the venues, content, and volume of “parent education”--aka marketing--are improved, we will continue to see Adventist parents choosing to send their students elsewhere.


Now that we’ve looked at some secondary causes of the problem of Adventist educational decline--waning commitment to Adventist institutions, tuition costs, and poor marketing--let’s get to the primary causes. I believe the six primary factors behind Adventist educational decline are:

1. The lack of passion among churchgoing members tor being a “conservative” Seventh-day Adventist.
2. A misunderstanding of what constitutes biblical discipleship.
3. Poor pastoral support of Adventist education.
4. Poor parenting.
5. The inroads of postmodernism, secularism, and “liberalism” in Adventism.
6. Poor-quality schools.

Knowing almost how we got into this mess will not suffice. Instead we have to uncover these deeper, more core reasons that Adventist education is in decline. Only then can we understand what steps to take to move our schools back into health. Part two will look at each one of the above causes in detail. 

1 Harold L Lee, “Church Structure in 2025,” www.adventistreview.org/thisweek/ millenn5.htm.

2 There will probably always be outstanding examples of schools that have a high percentage of non-Adventist students (such as our school on Orcas Island in the state of Washington, Olney Prep School in Maryland, etc.). But in the North American Division they are in the minority. (Outside of the NAD? That’s a different story.)
3  Kudos to AndrewsUniversity, SouthwesternAdventistUniversity, and Southern University for already sending marketing material to my two daughters, who are currently 2 and 7 years old.


Shane Anderson is senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in New Market, Virginia. This book can be ordered at www.adventistbookcenter.com, or by calling 1-800-765-6955.

This article was published October 15, 2009.