I recently received extensive data on the Concordia University System (CUS), which supplements a previous report that relied on publicly available information. The new data provides a great deal of insight on the CUS, and suggests where the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) needs to start accelerating its planning for the long-term future of its universities.
The new data allowed a more refined scoring system to better rank the Concordias. Selma has an abysmal ranking by virtually any measure. Seward is notable for offering great value although it lags its urban cousins in peer-group rankings. St. Paul is the converse.
CUS total tuition costs have been pacing national trends, and both are rapidly outpacing consumer price inflation. Without a large reduction in fees at St. Paul, it’s likely that CUS would have outpaced national private 4-year colleges.
A CUS student can expect to pay about $8,000 per year less than the national average for a private four-year college.
Selma boasts the lowest costs in the CUS, but students suffered a massive increase in fees for the 2014-15 academic year. For the rest of the Concordias, it is remarkable how tightly clustered the tuition, room & board costs are – despite the very different markets the institutions operate in. Given above-inflation trends for the whole system, there is a strong indication that fees are rising based on cost-plus budgeting rather than actual costs.
I estimated the total real cost to earn a diploma – excluding scholarships and awards – for an average student based on retention and graduation rates at each Concordia. The median CUS total cost of education is around $158,000 and it takes about 5.2 years for students to graduate. Most students should be able to accumulate $50,000-60,000 in grants of some sort over the course of reading for their degree, so the net total cost media is probably closer to $100,000 in the CUS.
Mequon has, by a large margin, the largest full-time equivalent undergraduate enrollment. Selma, Ann Arbor, and Bronxville are very small, which raises some questions about their long-term viability.
Total CUS enrollment has steadily increased since the peak of the credit crisis that hit in the 2009-2010 academic year. Most of the gains have come in post-graduate enrollment, with undergraduate enrollment stable for the last three years.
Vocation and Affiliation
The CUS is suffering a steady attrition of students enrolled for church-worker education. At the same time, LCMS affiliation continues to decline whilst the percentage of unchurched and undeclared students has risen dramatically. These trends are contrary to the purpose of the CUS. They also threaten the LCMS’s ability to steward its institutions, and maintain a Confessional Lutheran identity that is also reflected in course content.
Students affiliated with the LCMS are tiny minorities in nearly every university and college. Only Seward can claim a solid bloc of Missourians, followed by Ann Arbor. A majority of institutions no longer exist to serve the needs of LCMS members. (Note: a previous version of this chart was incorrectly labeled as a percentage of FTE equivalents instead of total enrollment. We apologize for the error).
Weighted by enrollment, the number of LCMS affiliated students in the CUS is declining by a little less than 1% a year. At current trends, LCMS students will be barely measurable after another decade. Church worker education also continues to decline, and is now a tiny fraction of overall enrollment.
Many of the institutions have pluralities of unchurched and undeclared students. This is the most urgent non-economic driver for rationalization because of its inevitable impact on the doctrine and practice of faculty and students.
None of the institutions is except from the trend of graduating fewer church workers, with dramatic declines over a short duration at many campuses. This is likely the most fruitful area for rationalization – the LCMS needs to subsidize and concentrate church worker education at fewer campuses, and ensure a pipeline of employment throughout the Synod.
A rapid decline in pre-seminary enrollments was reversed in 2014-2015, but appears to have resumed in the last academic year. Preliminary data suggests that the certification of alternative ministry track graduates is negatively correlated with pre-sem enrollment; i.e. the more alt-track pastors, the fewer pre-sem students.
Mequon, Seward, and River Forest account for nearly three-quarters of the total pre-seminary students. That raises questions about the depth of the theological departments in schools with tiny pre-sem enrollments.
Mequon and Seward are, relative to their enrollment and in absolute terms, powerhouses for graduating church-workers. Those universities also have the highest percentage of LCMS affiliated students, thereby confirming their CUS mandate and value to the Synod.
CUS student loan debt default rates are consistently about 1% higher than national averages for private 4-year colleges, and continue to trend upwards.
Selma’s default rate is shocking by comparison with its peers and colleges outside the CUS where the Stafford Loan default rate is about 27%. Seward has the lowest rate of default by a considerable margin, which also underscores its ranking as the best value school in the system. Even so, Seward’s default rate has doubled over three years, albeit off a very low base.
These CUS short-term statistics should act as clarifying agents for the regents of the institutions, as well as members of the LCMS who ultimately stand surety for them. An aggressive rationalization of the CUS is necessary and inevitable, and should not be delayed any further because of the risk of impairing assets.