Lon Morris College has been in the news lately, but not in a good way. Most recently almost all faculty and staff have been released because of their deep financial problems. I am not an alumnus of Lon Morris and have never attended the school. I do have some connection to the school, beyond being a member of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. My in laws are both Lon Morris grads. My brother was chaplain there many years ago. Finally, Lon Morris himself was a member of the church I pastored in Pittsburg. Though Lon Morris lived here long before my tenure, I heard stories about him from long-time church member Dave Abernathy.
What will become of Lon Morris College? Higher education is going through hard times lately. Many colleges have been closing, so Lon Morris’ situation is not unique. Outgoing president Miles McCall has made a go of it these past few years, working hard to make the institution viable.
As an outsider, it looks to me like the major strike against Lon Morris continuing is structural. It is a two-year college. Being a private school, Lon Morris relies on tuition and giving. It cannot rely on the state (even booming community colleges will tell you the state cannot be relied upon) or taxation for funding. Like other private schools it relies on the generosity of its successful graduates. Two year schools, however, typically send their successful graduates on to four year institutions to finish their education. Once they graduate from these four year schools, these students are more likely inclined to give their money to those institutions, not the school they started at. It is thus very difficult for private two year colleges to remain economically viable.
Can the school survive? I can think of two situations in which the school might continue.
First, the school might decide to become a four year school. This will give it a shot at viability. This will be a terribly difficult route to follow, however, and will require a large infusion of cash to acquire a faculty willing and able to fight the way (back) to full accreditation.
Second, the school might go the non-traditional route. Higher education in America is in the midst of massive change. While the model of college as a highly structured credentialing institution – finish a degree and we’ll certify that you’re equipped to hold down a job in a particular field – is still entrenched, it is facing challenges. From one side, online learning is offering new opportunities to students. From another, that traditional model is being undermined by two factors. The first, the huge cost of the traditional model, is leading many to look for alternatives (including the $10k degree here in Texas). The second, is the growing perception that the traditional model doesn’t deliver on its promises. The key promise has been something like, “Paying for this degree is worth your while because you’ll end up making much more over your life time than if you hadn’t earned the degree.” This is the story told students as far back as when their high school days. Get a bachelors degree and you’ll earn more than you would if you only had a high school diploma. And graduate school? Master and doctoral degrees will only ratchet up your income. Seeing that (a) many recent college graduates are having difficulty finding a job that uses their degrees, and (b) stories of PhD graduates on food stamps, some have begun to question what they’ve been told. Doubts about the traditional model have not reached critical mass yet (if they ever will), but they are growing.
Given these doubts, Lon Morris might develop an alternative vision for education rather than trying again to do what they’ve always done. What might such a vision look like? Here are some suggestions of a possibility.
Lon Morris is a church related institution. One of the recent movements in the church has been what is called the “New Monasticism.” I can imagine the Lon Morris campus becoming the home of a monastic community that takes education to be its mission. Likely with few permanent residents, the college would offer scholars temporary residency for prayer, study and community with other scholars and learners. I can imagine such an institution providing continuing education and spiritual formation for clergy. I can also imagine it providing a liberal arts education for students, though a liberal arts education that turns away from the modern reduction of education to the means to get a well paying job.
Would pursuing such a model of higher education work? Probably not. The traditional model of education in our culture has huge economic and political support. United Methodism as an institution has been strongly committed to the traditional model, so it would be difficult to break away from it. But such a project might be just what the church needs in our age.