Perhaps nowhere is the variety of American evangelicalism more apparent than among the 150 or so faith-based institutions that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU). While these institutions have learned to cooperate in areas such as faculty research, campus technology, and library services, in their core function—teaching and learning—Christian colleges and universities have historically chosen to go it alone.
Some have envisioned another way. Sixty years ago, one of the architects of the post-fundamentalist evangelical revival, Carl Henry, penned an editorial in Christianity Today entitled “Why Not a Federated Campus?”1 Henry noted the growing network of evangelical institutions of higher education. “It would seem,” he mused, “that the evangelical movement could overcome much of its present fragmentation and lift its academic achievements by greater cooperation among schools.” Rather than a single university, Henry envisioned what he called “federated campuses” among Christian colleges in which they could share courses and faculty rather than simply duplicating each others’ programs. While not likely to result from a top-down mandate, he suggested, “a federated campus might emerge more naturally by evangelical cooperation from the bottom up.”
Henry’s vision went largely unrealized for two primary reasons. First, at least at the regional level, Christian colleges generally compete for the same students, and that competition has only increased over the decades. Second, geographical distance made it unlikely that a student would take courses from multiple Christian institutions. Actually, a model for such “federated campuses” does exist—the Five College Consortium in Western Massachusetts. But the member institutions are all within the same region, and a shuttle bus takes students from, say, Amherst College to Smith College.
The rise of online education in the 1990s solved the problem of distance in collaboration. Now a student at, say, Seattle Pacific University could take an online class at Palm Beach Atlantic, provided that the two institutions were willing to cooperate. In 1998, sensing the collaborative potential in online education, CCCU President Robert Andringa created a subsidiary called Christian University Globalnet (CUGN), whose goal was to “foster collaborative educational efforts using technology.”2 The organization sought to assist CCCU schools in developing online courses that would be distributed via CUGN to a broader audience.
Andringa’s idea made sense on paper but floundered in practice. Enrollments in the courses lagged, institutional support languished, and eventually CUGN was acquired by RBC Ministries in order to use the platform to offer free online Bible courses. Andringa remarked in 2001, “excitement for distance learning is less today than a few years earlier.”3 Actually, in retrospect, it seems that demand for online education wasn’t waning, but as Carl Henry had predicted, the CCCU’s top-down approach to collaboration could not overcome evangelical colleges’ independent tendencies.
Two decades later, the CCCU took a new approach to academic collaboration, more in keeping with Henry’s “bottom-up” recommendation, with very different results. At the 2018 CCCU International Forum, eight schools, in partnership with an Austin, Texas-based educational technology company called Acadeum, met to form the Christian College Online Course-Sharing Consortium.4
The Consortium is based on a simple fact: After two decades of developing online programs (and two years of COVID-mandated remote learning), CCCU institutions have created thousands of quality online courses. Thus, rather than creating more online courses (the old CUGN approach), the Consortium unlocks open “seats” in CCCU members’ existing online courses and enables them to flow to other schools that need them.
For example, Gordon College might post open seats in its Business Law course to the CCCU network at a discounted tuition rate via the online platform operated by Acadeum. Another school can buy that seat to provide for its student who needs Business Law to graduate on time, and the cross-registration and payment details are managed automatically by the platform. In other words, the Consortium’s platform functions as a matchmaker somewhat like AirBnb, not for open bedrooms in houses, but for open seats in online courses.
The effectiveness of the course-sharing model, therefore, is that it doesn’t rely on pledges of friendship between college presidents. Rather, it leverages the competitive realities of independent colleges to work for cooperation rather than against it, since each partner in the course exchange gets something out of it. Moreover, because the basic currency of exchange is single seats in courses, not entire courses, collaboration can work at the granular level of meeting individual students’ needs. Finally, because no governing entity sets prices, the cost for a seat is dictated by the free market of supply and demand. What’s the value within the CCCU network of an open seat in, say, a three-credit Introduction to Psychology class? Currently about $700.
By creating a flexible model in which collaboration advances the interest of both partnering institutions, the Consortium has succeeded where earlier approaches did not. The number of CCCU member institutions in the U.S. and Canada now involved in the Consortium has grown to over seventy in just four years, and over the past nine months, 2,339 open seats in online courses have been shared.
Course-sharing is valuable because it addresses the basic challenge faced by private Christian colleges and universities—efficiently providing the amount and variety of courses that students need in order to complete a degree in four years. Simply put, the goal of colleges is to graduate their students with degrees, and courses are the means to that end. Course-sharing provides colleges with more tools to accomplish the task.
Thus, CCCU schools have developed a variety of uses for course-sharing. Initially, institutions primarily used course-sharing to improve student retention. For example, a first-year student who fails a fall semester course that is only taught once a year can, through the CCCU consortium, re-take the course over Winter Term and get back on track for spring semester.
Another course-sharing tool is reducing summer transfer courses. At colleges such as my own, students take hundreds of courses elsewhere over the summer, typically at local community colleges. Course-sharing will enable us to provide these students with better alternatives from CCCU partners, and to recover some of the tuition revenue in the process.
Institutions also use course-sharing to become more transfer-friendly by providing such students with necessary courses that might be out of the regular four-year sequence. Other schools are taking course-sharing a step further and developing new majors and minors that employ courses from partner schools. For example, John Brown University has created new majors in high-demand areas such as cybersecurity and criminal justice by selectively employing courses from other CCCU schools.
Of course, online course-sharing is not a panacea that will solve all the challenges facing private higher education, and there are limits to its usefulness. For one thing, at least at institutions such as my own, the core of what we do will always be face-to-face courses taught by full-time professors. Online courses can supplement that core but are not a replacement for it. Furthermore, in today’s challenging economic environment, online course-sharing, if not framed properly, can foster suspicions among faculty that it will be used by administrators as a tool to “outsource the curriculum.”
More generally, accepting courses from other CCCU schools, whether online or otherwise, requires that schools relinquish, at least somewhat, the notion that their own courses are unique and irreplaceable and instead adopt a posture of cooperation. The reality is that many students already take courses away from their home school at some point in their college career, and the CCCU Consortium provides such students with alternatives that are both faith-based and higher quality.
Ultimately, whether the CCCU Consortium becomes a powerful tool in helping Christian higher education thrive in challenging times depends, I believe, on the support and imagination of faculty in academic departments to take ownership of course-sharing and use it productively. When collaboration becomes seen as an asset to an academic department rather than a threat, then significant benefits can emerge.
For example, one of the burdens of professors at small colleges is the responsibility to provide “Independent Studies” to particular students who for some reason get out of alignment with their regular course sequence. Course-sharing can provide a better option, both for the student and the professor. Or course-sharing can expand foreign language options for students at colleges with limited language offerings. That student planning to study in Beijing next semester might benefit from taking Mandarin online from a partner institution. Eventually, with some imagination and perseverance, small academic departments at CCCU institutions could work together to provide more upper-level courses collectively for their students than would be possible from a single department. And those expensive, professionally-focused programs such as computer science could draw on a hub of specialized courses in the Consortium that might be too expensive to offer themselves.
Such a process, however, cannot be imposed from above by a dean or provost. It must be imagined and driven from the bottom up by professors who want to serve their students and are willing to collaborate with their peers at other institutions in order to do so. In other words, effective academic collaboration will depend on CCCU institutions seeing themselves not as independent players but as members of a broader movement. Then, perhaps, Carl Henry’s dream of a “Federated Campus” might actually be realized, not through the elimination of individual institutions, but through their cooperation.
- Carl F.H. Henry, “Why Not a Federated Campus?” Christianity Today (January 19, 1962).
- James A. Patterson, Shining Lights: A History of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 91.
- James A. Patterson, Shining Lights and Widening Horizons: A History of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities(Washington, D.C.: Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, 2006), 17.
- I served as vice president of the CCCU at the time and continue to be involved in growing the course-sharing network.