Christian Higher Education in an Exponential Age

Not all values can be quantified.
April 5th, 2018

The Age of the Exponential Organization

"The Times, They Are a-Changin'." Bob Dylan's 1964 anthem can be applied to nearly any era, but not all change is the same. Salim Ismail, the former executive director of Singularity University—an online "learning platform"—notes that today, the collection and utilization of information is broadening exponentially (rate of change multiplies) and not in a linear fashion (rate of change is additive).

This gives rise to what Ismail calls an "exponential organization" —or ExO—which is a firm whose growth results from accessing and leveraging ever-expanding pools of data. Massive databases of information, facilitated through other expanding technologies (microchips, smartphones, etc.), provide unprecedented opportunities for cheaper, faster, and leaner organizational growth. In an "ExO era," technology coordinates data with existing resources, so firms can operate out of abundance, not scarcity.

What does exponential change mean for Christian higher education?

The impact on existing "linear" institutions is all around us. Retail shopping has been turned on its head by Amazon; transportation and lodging have been disrupted by Uber and Airbnb; the future of manufacturing will be fundamentally altered by the 3D printer; lending services no longer rely on brick-and-mortar banks thanks to firms like Kickstarter and Kiva; and Google has reconstituted the acquisition and deployment of information in the digital age.

Given the propensity of technology to refashion many institutions, what role does (or can!) a linear, information-driven institution such as a college or university have? More specifically, what does exponential change mean for Christian higher education? Post-secondary academic institutions are, in many ways, archetypal linear institutions. They are notoriously hierarchical in their organizational structures, exhibit low-risk decision-making, innovate from within, operate with high human capital and high fixed assets, and—perhaps above all—tend to rely on additive, linear thinking (one building = four hundred students; two buildings = eight hundred students, etc.). A typical higher-education agenda involves strategic initiatives related to enrollments, capital expenditures, academic programs, and budgets—sequentially mapped out in one-, five-, and ten-year blocks, and often associated with fundraising campaigns. Such initiatives aim toward growth; and with growth, notes Ismail, comes scalability and sustainability, the "raison d'être of the linear organization."

Not only are colleges and universities linear, they are increasingly expensive. To date, the higher-education model has failed to place sufficient downward pressure on institutional costs. Headlines frequently lament the considerable spike in undergraduate and graduate tuition increases. But what drives tuition? While instructional costs have remained relatively constant over the decades, administrative costs have increased dramatically. Add student amenities, non-academic facilities, expanding athletics, the cost of compliance, fluctuating utility expenses, and an increasingly competitive market for students (reflected both in tuition "discounting" and the trend to upgrade every element of a campus)—and it is not difficult to see why a college degree is a pricey affair.

Today, there seems to be a tendency among our political and economic elites to describe higher education in instrumental terms: a blunt instrument to equip and credential students for a complex global marketplace. Similarly, a recent Brookings Institute report referenced the popular conception of education as an investment: a suite of components serving to enhance future earnings. Here, a degree is a commodity; a social and economic permit to the professional world.

But if higher education is an investment for students, and for universities a commodity to be sold, then today's schools may be particularly ripe for disruptive change. Modern technology can—in theory, at least—deliver world-class lectures from world-class teachers to larger audiences, without the necessity of buildings, staff, and budgets. Moreover, students can have assignments graded cheaply by computers or other advanced machine learning technology. The manner in which we transferred information thirty years ago is an outdated link in today's chain of progress, since information can be seamlessly and instantly exchanged through a variety of technological channels at a low cost. (What was only a phone at the turn of the century can now double as a classroom.)

Professors, and the colleges and universities they inhabit, are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge. Information can now be tapped by nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, at a low cost.

Given this, what might the eventual impact of the ExO be on higher education going forward? If a university is "the ultimate information-based organization," as Georgetown University provost Robert Groves writes, how might the ExO disrupt, or even displace, the long-standing organizational architecture of colleges and universities? What vestiges of the academy will be left behind when post-secondary education hits an information inflection point? In an age of exponential change, the imagery is ominous. The impression that higher education is an investment for students and a commodity for universities draws on an underlying conception that such institutions exist to traffic in information.

But what if a university is not an information-based organization? What if schools did something more than inform and credential?

But what if a university is not an information-based organization? What if schools did something more than inform and credential? What if they were constituted by a complex web of practices transcending the exchange of information? Indeed, what if they were animated by an entirely different conception of reality altogether?

These questions invite us to more carefully consider the identity of, and practice within, the faith-based college and university.

Christian Higher Education and Exponential Change: Two Inquiries

What unique role will Christian institutions of higher education have in an exponential era? To answer this, we must first understand the traditional organizational model for linear institutions. As Ismail describes it, the conventional organizational framework takes an asset (good or service), surrounds it with a workforce, protects it with a legal structure, and then sells "access to scarcity."

For the faith-based Christian college, this helpful description invites two lines of inquiry. The first is more cautionary. For institutions wedded to the conventional model of sustainability, what happens when the supposedly scarce asset you are selling is no longer scarce? Put otherwise, what protected good or service is higher education selling access to? If the answer relates to information and its dissemination, then the implications are significant.

For the ExO, primacy is given to abundance, not scarcity; access, not ownership. As Ismail writes, "If your asset is information-based or commoditized at all, then accessing is better than possessing." In other words, if a low-cost model for acquiring educational content already exists, why not access it (as opposed to producing your own)?

Consider, for example, the myriad schools who've begun to outsource basic lessons to public digital resources (e.g., Kahn Academy)—not their local teacher. This is not merely a complementary resource. Indeed, the marginal cost to deliver pre-existing and digitally accessible content is effectively zero. Moreover, such resources can be scaled in a manner that bypasses traditionally linear constraints. One teacher can only service so many proximate students, but a digital resource transcends constraints relating to oversight, geography, time, and expense. In addition to outsourcing, schools may opt to create their own pool of information content that can be accessed, scaled, and replicated at a low cost.

Such features open imaginative vistas that would have seemed impossible even a decade ago. In lieu of the traditional professor, content can now be transmitted by highly specialized field experts with massive availability at increasingly lower prices. Moreover, the exponential organization's penchant for accessibility would likely discourage the proliferation of capital expenditures on campus—high-tech buildings, luxury dorms, or other fixed-expense amenities—and encourage more sensible space utilization through multi-use facilities or even collaborative ventures between institutions. Indeed, it may reconstitute the very necessity of a formal campus at all! Knowledge sharing and accessibility models fundamentally alter conventional conceptions of course delivery, classrooms, and learning in general.

Often a school’s value proposition lies not in the degree, but in the experience of acquiring it.

The possibilities of a more efficient and dynamic future for colleges and universities are not difficult to imagine. Yet efficiency does not plow forward without damage. Here, the euphemism of "disruptive" progress belies the potential dismantling of deeper, more humanizing practices facilitated in higher education's seemingly primitive architecture—particularly for faith-based schools. "You have to break an egg to get an omelet" they say. What, exactly, are we willing to break? Or, perhaps, what is breakable?

For this reason, the age of the ExO invites a second line of inquiry. Specifically, if information at a given college or university is no longer scarce, are there dimensions of a student's educational experience within the traditional model that are? Here, schools bearing the moniker "Christian" are inherently nuanced, standing apart from their higher-education brethren.

While many institutions will naturally advertise their educational credentials (programs, rankings, job placement, etc.)—often a school's value proposition lies not in the degree, but in the experience of acquiring it. Students self-select into schools for a variety of reasons, many of which consort awkwardly with the conception of colleges and universities as "information-based organizations" (e.g., religious tradition). Further, students with motivations beyond knowledge acquisition will likely seek to gather—selecting into proximate arrangements with peers, professors, and other college and university personnel as a formative part of their educational experience. Physical space matters, and only so much of what is "learned" transmits through asynchronous, non-proximate means. The aforementioned characteristics have value—the kind of value that is not easily outsourced. An essence.

Of course, such characteristics are hardly limited to faith-based schools. In general, Christian colleges and universities often mirror their non-Christian counterparts: dorms, athletics, student life, liberal arts, professional schools, and the common suite of undergraduate and graduate degrees. However, a close inspection reveals a more complex and multifaceted approach to the educational community.

Faith-based schools seek to educate the mind—but their ultimate aim is formational. That is, developing and orienting students toward character, moral excellence, acute spiritual sensibilities, and meaningful societal contributions. To be clear, these aren't simply things that Christian schools do or attributes they have. This is who they are: ethos informs identity, and identity drives practice. In contrast, Robert Bellah has disparaged the modern university as an otherwise fragmented, non-teleological "multiversity"—"a cafeteria in which one acquires discrete bodies of information or useful skills." (Similarly, Christian Smith has more recently lamented "fragmentversities" —hyper-specialized and siloed academic departments that lack a unifying, coherent narrative.)

The formational ethos of Christian schools has embraced and supported both a social and a personal dimension. With respect to the latter, a faith-based educational climate is not merely concerned with what Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc refer to as "the self-authoring mind." Rather, Christian education is animated by a more ancient orientation. Aristotle believed that education proper should be aimed toward rightly ordered affections, desires, and impulses. In an ironic twist, this approach to learning has less to do with what we know but rather with what we love. In this conception of education, ordinate affections are at the heart of a prosperous, virtuous life. "The good life"—write Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky—"is not simply one of satisfied desire; it indicates the proper goal of desire. Desire is to be cultivated, directed to the truly desirable. Moral education is an education of the sentiments." For the faith-based institution, "educating the sentiments" is a holistic notion, inculcated across a variety of university dimensions through repetition, experience, and relationship.

Given the traditional aims of Christian education, it is little wonder that such practices spill over in larger social, political, economic, and cultural ways. For example, the first college chartered to grant degrees to women was Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. Oberlin College, subscribing to a faith-inspired vision of reality, was the first US institution in higher education to admit students of all races and, consequently, graduated the first African American student in 1844. David Brooks has written about Frances Perkins and her college experience at Mount Holyoke, a Massachusetts seminary for women where character and service were preached as practices necessary to live life well.

There are still experiences unique to the higher-education model that remain scarce, non-transferrable, and of enduring importance and value.

Moreover, Christian colleges and universities cultivate and refine the vocabulary to articulate the moral animus of its members. These attributes supersede knowledge, aiming for capacity and character, since, as Martha Nussbaum has said, "a good doctor is also a good poisoner." Christian higher education's formative development of mind and heart, cultivation of virtue and excellence, and refining process culminating in preparation, application, and maturation naturally spills over into a wider social, political, economic, and cultural realm. "The robust Christian thought that is fostered and embraced at [Christian colleges and universities]," writes Barry Corey, "is not just good for Christianity; it's good for society."

As evidence, Corey cites the Washington Monthly College Guide—rankings based on a school's "contribution to the public good"—where a proportionally significant number of CCCU schools (Council for Christian Colleges & Universities) are at the top of the list. Further, CCCU students are more likely to be first-generation college attendees, are overrepresented in lower-earning but socially influential human-service fields, and are more likely to participate in community service than their secular counterparts. The integrated approach to education found in faith-based colleges and universities, notes David Brooks, "[has] the potential to influence American culture in a way that could be magnificent."

Selling the Liberal Arts Experience

While this brief description hardly captures the breadth and multi-dimensional complexity of faith-based schools and universities, it does illustrate that Christian higher education aspires to more than knowledge acquisition, credentialing, and career preparation. As Kathleen Norris describes it, people of faith "traffic in intangibles." It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine such "intangibles" being effectively absorbed in the ExO model. By definition, formation and discipleship are not subject to the exponential paradigm; they are shaped and cultivated in a deliberate community. Put differently, while the ExO has the potential to transform significant dimensions of how information is facilitated and exchanged, there are still experiences unique to the higher-education model that remain scarce, non-transferrable, and of enduring importance and value. The challenge for Christian institutions will be determining how to sustainably offer such valuable experiences even as ExO dynamics exert low-cost, high-availability pressure on information goods.

So while our foray into the exponential era does not, in itself, spell the demise of existing Christian colleges and universities, it does amplify an ever-present tension: The commodification, marketing, and sale of Christianity's less than instrumental dimensions, such as formation, character development, experience, and relationship. If the life of faith is growing into the "prototype of the new humanity"—to use a phrase by scholar Christopher Wright—how does that capitalize into a price? Can Christian education be commodified without degrading the student's experience to an instrument for careerism?

Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper helpfully points to the classical distinction between education that is liberal (freely pursued) vis-à-vis education that is servile (end goal facilitates the means). The former is valued in itself; the latter is valued for its usefulness.

To be clear, education that requires tuition will, by definition, possess a utilitarian dimension (a cost prescribed for a perceived exchange of value). For the faith-based school, this invites certain risks. For example, to reduce the value of education to the outcome is to instrumentalize a student's experience to a narrow cost-benefit exercise. As philosopher Elizabeth Anderson suggests, some goods constitute an elevated mode of valuation, whose complexity cannot be reduced to component inputs (i.e., dollars). Such "higher goods" risk being corrupted or degraded when bluntly pruned to a monistic mode of valuation. Thus selling the Christian liberal-arts experience at a college or university raises valid semiotic objections when articulating a degree's "worth" in dollars and cents.

This does not, ipso facto, make the economic nature of Christian higher education wrong. Indeed, there is an economic dimension of education that is simply unavoidable. Rather, universities in the faith tradition should continue to emphasize their value. Yet value, like the educational experience, is pluralistic in its expressions. Christian colleges and universities serve to equip students for a complex marketplace, and such preparation can be measured in exchange value terms. As Pieper notes, education has a utilitarian aspect of training, preparing "functionaries" to navigate the professional world. "But the question is," he writes, "whether the world, defined as the world of work, is exhaustively defined; can man develop to the full as a functionary and a ‘worker' and nothing else; can a full human existence be contained within an exclusively workaday existence?"

For schools of faith, the answer must be no.

So, how might Christian colleges and universities address this tension? First, it is important to think carefully about how the value proposition of Christian higher education is articulated to its audience. As Harvard's Michael Sandel has argued, when you discuss moral and spiritual values in economic terms—you invariably receive an economic response. Economic calculations, while prized for their efficiency, are a blunt instrument for accurately reflecting elevated norms of the good, right, and true. Indeed, students self-select into these programs for a variety of reasons (some economic, some not). In this sense, communicating the value of faith-based institutions should be pluralistic—a compelling conveyance of the liberal and servile, the meaningful and useful, the spiritual and the material. Rightly ordered love may be difficult to monetize, but it should not be difficult to valorize in deliberate Christian community. Moreover, as discussed, ordinate affections have a social expression that benefits the common good. Here, faith-based schools are not to be merely tolerated by society, they are necessary—and in some cases indispensable—institutions.

Moving Forward

We find ourselves in an era of information and rapid technological expansion—an "exponential age." This has touched, or even transformed, multiple dimensions of society and culture—and long-standing institutions in higher education are no exception. While this may alter elements of the educational realm, it need not be an ominous prospect for Christian colleges and universities.

Faith-based schools that effectively emphasize, arrange, and practice unique, non-transferable educational experiences are more likely to produce a robust barricade from what might be understood as an exponential threat. Beyond mere knowledge, Christian education is ultimately an epistemic claim about the nature of reality, identity, and action as image bearers of a creator God. This will require a more rich and capacious moral vocabulary for Christian colleges and universities as they seek to "sell" this value in a consumer-driven educational landscape. Despite the march of exponential forces, value will continue to emerge in a market-oriented arrangement—a hopeful phenomenon for Christian schools that effectively articulate and provide pluralistically valued higher goods in this era.


Kevin Brown is an Associate Professor of Business at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Prior to higher education, he worked for nearly a decade in the banking industry, serving as a market president in his final four years.


Steve Clements is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Science and History at Asbury University.


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