Principles of CBTE: Affordable Programs

February 22, 2021

by Greg Henson, President

Let’s continue our conversation on competency-based theological education (CBTE) by describing the six organizational practices that create fertile soil for CBTE. Taken together, these principles and practices are intended to create a platform on which a vast array of discipleship journeys can be built. From stewarding followers of Jesus who flourish as pastors or parachurch leaders to stewarding those who thrive as software engineers, real estate agents, and financial planners, CBTE programs have the potential to create fresh expressions of education that move us toward integrative living as citizens of the Kingdom.

The six practices are: (1) Affordable Programs, (2), Unified Systems, (3) Flexible Technology, (4) Collaborative Governance, (5) Ongoing Iteration, and (6) Quality Framework. (Here is a high-level overview of all six practices.) Today, we are going to look at the practice of affordable programs.

When we talk about affordability, we tend to speak in terms of what a student pays. To address affordability issues then we raise funds to provide scholarships.  But what every president knows is that this doesn’t really address the affordability of the education, only the cost to students.  Providing scholarships simply shifts the burden of cost to other parts of the church. Since CBTE is at its core collaborative participation in the Great Commission, we must create programs that are inherently less expensive to operate and which encourage more faithful stewardship of the resources God provides.

Stewardship is an important aspect of strategic thinking, but if we don’t hold strategy in tension with stewardship, we run the risk of developing systems of theological education driven by money rather than mission. In the article “Sustainability and Strategic Thinking in Theological Education” published in the Autumn 2019 edition of In Trust Magazine, Chris Meinzer, who has over 20 years of experience working with seminary data and currently serves as Senior Director of Administration for ATS, wrote, “I believe the largest driver in how schools utilize their human, financial, and physical resources is . . . history.”

If our financial stewardship runs consistently with our history, it is important for us to acknowledge that our history has been formed in the siloed approach to education that has defined modern higher education. The result is that we have created a system in which we tend to justify charging fees that burden students with unsustainable debt and/or the church with unnecessary cost. While some schools have done great work in trying to combat this challenge, primarily through the daunting work of raising money for financial aid, the fact is that much of that work still allows history to be the driving force behind decisions. The “cost” of theological education continues to rise at an alarming rate – and students are shouldering the burden.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

CBTE invites us to look for new solutions rather than trying to secure funds for what we have always done. We must shift from thinking about “how can we fund quality education” to “how can finance be understood as part of the learning ecosystem which follows the rhythms of the learning journey in a way that allows all stakeholders to flourish.” There is no rule that says high-quality theological education must be expensive. In fact, I might suggest that tuition and quality are inversely correlated. The wider the chasm between the church and the academy, the higher the sticker price of tuition will most likely be.

How Did We Get Here?
As modern higher education took its shape over the past few centuries, it was deeply formed in a context where content was assumed to be scarce – and in many ways it was.  As a result, systems and structures were developed to make the production and sale of content more efficient – structures that tended to value silos over integration. The approach was helpful when access to the world’s information was managed by a few particular people and places. Unfortunately, that approach also turned content delivery into a fixed (something schools already had plenty of). Over time, fixed-cost and content-driven classrooms became the driving force behind the learner’s development. The tuition model to support this approach was built around credit hours which became the means by which these content-driven classrooms were quantified (even though that was not the original intention). Schools leveraged these courses to provide what they felt the church needed. The goal became proficiency of a certain “body of knowledge.” At the time, this approach made logical sense and seemed to be the most affordable and efficient way to develop educational models. Today, all that has changed.

Information is no longer housed in institutions but available widely. There is always more content than anyone (faculty, experts, etc.) or any institution (universities, libraries, journals, databases, etc.) can keep up with. There will always be more and more content which means more and more specialization. It also means that the economic value of content is constantly declining. If we understand our primary role to be content providers, we have both an educational and financial problem. Conversely, when we embrace the fact that knowing is integrative and that relationships are the most transformational means by which learners can be developed for their vocations, we can begin to see a new way forward.

What Next?
Competency-based theological education provides an opportunity to imagine systems of theological education that are genuinely affordable — meaning they do not require chasing funds to manage fixed costs or developing learning pathways that are only viable if bunches of students participate. CBTE upends the conventional financial paradigm with an affordable system that leverages 1) variable costs, 2) new tuition models, and 3) the vast resources available outside of the academy.

Variable Costs
Costs become variable instead of fixed because mentor relationships are the driving force behind the learners’ development not the classroom. While learners may participate in wonderful and important classroom experiences, those experiences are not what the student is measured by, nor the primary mechanism that propels the student forward, meaning we can utilize such methods more judiciously. This one reality can dramatically lower an institution’s fixed costs. Rather than building an educational pathway around “providing content,” CBTE invites the learning, with the guidance and support of a mentor team, to acquire, integrate, and display learning — to develop holistic knowledge. The expenses of a school, therefore, rise and fall in sync with learning rather than with the value and production of content.

Obviously, all of this requires a new vision for the role of faculty, staff, and administrators. In our experience, those who embrace a CBTE approach to learning and the operational practices to support it find freedom in their new role. Perhaps most exciting is that the variable nature of the revenue and costs allow people to decide where and how to invest their energies. While CBTE does require us to revisit topics that were once sacrosanct, we have found those conversations to be life giving.

New Tuition Models
With learning being the center of the educational journey rather than content delivery, it makes less sense to build tuition models around things like credit hours. Most schools doing CBTE have found that subscription pricing is a better option. By using a low-price recurring tuition model, students no longer need to worry about what they are going to pay for a particular semester and institutions do not need to build budgets around unknown revenue streams. This gives both parties cost certainty.

For the school, subscription payments mean that there is no need to worry about how something like “drop/add week” impacts a student’s tuition. Financial aid processes do not need to include meticulous tracking of student enrollment.

For the student, subscription payments mean they have clarity and control over their tuition payments. They know exactly what it is going to cost because there are no additional fees, no change based on financial aid, and no adjustments due to course enrollment or progress. They also can control the pace of their progress and stop at any time.

Wider View of Resources
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of CBTE is the way it honors the vast resources outside of the academy. It invites us to lean into the fact that seminary doesn’t hold all the knowledge necessary for developing students. When we embrace that reality, we learn that our partners are empowered to walk alongside us in more substantial ways. In many ways, they can provide learning experiences that would be impossible for us to replicate. Instead of asking, “What do we need to add to our content?” we can ask “Which partners are already doing good work?” That question opens our eyes to the fact that the educational journey is not about us. It is about the learner and the learner’s context. With that new lens, we realize how much learning, content acquisition, and development of proficiency happens outside the walls of our schools and what the faculty at a school can provide. That reality spreads the power and privilege of the educational journey throughout the entire Body of Christ, which ultimately reduces the price of tuition and cost to educate students.

As an organizational practice affordable programs requires us to think different about many things. As we look through the other five practices, we will learn that thinking differently will be a common thread. Join me next week as we look at unified systems.

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