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Known as the “family-friendly Las Vegas,” Branson, Mo., is home to many touristy spectacles: a life-size replica of the Titanic, horse dancers frolicking in Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, a Hollywood-esque cracked building housing Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and an endless parade of country music shows. But the No. 4 most popular attraction on review site TripAdvisor.com is a tour of the College of the Ozarks (C of O), where gawkers can snap photos of respectful college students doing honest work in exchange for a tuition-free education.
In this competitive college market, this school of 1,400 still thrives financially. It even nabbed the top spot in Christian College Online’s 2014 ranking of the 50 best Christian colleges. As many tuition-driven colleges, such as the controversy-ridden Louisiana College, slowly sink in a pool of expensive amenities and extraneous majors, C of O floats on a hefty $410 million endowment—the largest of any school in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). How does a tuition-free college survive, while other colleges charging an average of $30,000 per year fret about their emptying coffers?
A look around the C of O campus, where students grind wheat at the on-campus mill and don hairnets to bake the school’s signature fruitcakes, reveals the school’s fidelity to its 1906 mission (created when it was still a high school) to provide a Christian education to young people who are “found worthy but who are without sufficient means to procure such training.” Such faithfulness has kept the school surviving—and thriving—as students expect and learn to earn their keep through humble, traditional labor.
Without tuition as a revenue source, C of O doesn’t need to pander to parents and students as do typical colleges. It can model financial responsibility to millennials. Freshmen start off working in menial jobs: washing windows, scrubbing toilets, or cleaning rooms at the lodge, sometimes waking up at the crack of dawn to finish a shift before class. Each semester, they can apply for new positions that relate to their majors. For example, communication majors staff the school’s PR office, nursing students work at on-campus clinics, and education majors help out at the newly opened School of the Ozarks high school on campus.
By the time students graduate, they’ve garnered interview experience, compiled lengthy resumés, earned debt-free diplomas, and most importantly, learned good work etiquette. “It helps them tremendously,” said Chris Larsen, dean of work. “Employers look for C of O grads first. They know our students will work and are respectful, so they call us up when there are openings.”
The college’s unique focus on hard work, patriotism, and character education attracts numerous donors who fear the country is pulling away from its traditional roots. Some donors were first introduced to C of O as tourists dining at its highly rated restaurant, where students serve smoked tomato soup and harvest salad tossed with student-grown vegetables from the school’s greenhouse.
Along with donations, the school runs on federal grants, minimal staff, student-generated revenue, and fiscally conservative practices that ensure the school stays debt free. For instance, C of O will not start any building project until it obtains complete funding for it and rejects any plans that fall outside the school’s mission, such as adding a graduate school or expanding enrollment.
The spirited, no-nonsense President Jerry Davis, who took over C of O in 1988 when the school was struggling financially and “waffling” in its direction, is one reason why the original mission has remained uncompromised. “If you’re going to charge what most colleges charge, you gotta offer something different,” he said. “Now here it’s obvious: Students don’t pay tuition, everybody works. You see that head, heart, and hand philosophy actually carried out. It’s basically a ‘be good or be gone’ philosophy.”
Within the first few years of his presidency, Davis cut staff, consolidated 23 departments into six divisions, and even implemented a dress code forbidding men to have long hair or earrings. His decisions came under fire, especially as he rid the school of tenure in 1993, to the outrage of the American Association of University Professors. But as Davis often says, “people don’t give us money to be like everyone else.” The numbers speak for themselves: C of O’s endowment allowed it to coast through the recent recession.
Students coming to campus know exactly what they’re getting themselves into: 15 hours a week of work on top of their schooling, and two 40-hour work weeks during their breaks. Tough luck if they can’t handle the workload—10 prospective students will snatch up their spots, Davis said. With so many applicants, the school can be as choosy as an Ivy League university. Per the school vision, all students must demonstrate financial need, and priority is given to residents of the impoverished Ozarks region in Missouri and Arkansas, where the per capita income hovers around $17,000. Most students are grateful to be there: Without C of O, they would not be able to afford a Christian higher education.
MEANWHILE, ABOUT 430 MILES SOUTH in Pineville, La., another Christian college has also been attracting attention—for all the opposite reasons. Louisiana College (LC) has almost the same student body size as C of O and was founded in 1906, but the similarities end there. LC is one of the many small liberal arts colleges trying to compete for students with projects: more buildings, more programs, more majors, and eventually (it hopes), more tuition dollars. Instead, LC slid into financial, academic, legal, and leadership dysfunction.
After some nasty top-level shenanigans regarding forged signatures on accreditation documents, and a subsequent Game of Thrones-esque battle of blame, LC has recently been placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), a mere six months after its last “Warning” status. The probation is the third time in 10 years that LC has received sanctions from SACS, which listed four key concerns about LC: standards of integrity, trustee board governance, personnel practices, and audit findings.
Much of LC’s woes can be traced back to its leadership, specifically former President Joe Aguillard. In April he became president emeritus (retaining an LC faculty position and an office on campus). Further up the leadership chain is the Louisiana Baptist Convention (LBC), which funds about 11 percent of the school’s budget and wields heavy influence on the LC Board of Trustees, a 35-member team that includes LBC executive director David Hankins.
At first colleagues at the college greeted Aguillard as a “charming Southern gentleman” who cleared out the liberal faculty and hired professors who affirmed the Baptist faith. But critics say he lost track of the school’s original mission, which includes a “devotion to academic excellence for the glory of God.”
Jay Adkins, a trustee since 2008, remembers being dazzled at first by all the exciting new programs Aguillard proposed: a law school, a medical school, and a divinity school. But as the list grew to include a film school as well as a Bible school in Tanzania, Adkins and many others started wondering how the school planned to pay for it all, when the existing buildings were in dire need of maintenance—about $35 million in repairs. Students, who pay a $14,520 annual tuition, were living in mold-infested buildings and dealing with sporadic outages in power and hot water. At times, internet connection would crash, leaving students unable to complete homework, take online tests, or register for classes.
Despite such pressing financial needs, Aguillard pursued his grand plans. Various whistle-blower complaints say he diverted donations to fund other projects, then misled the board of trustees and a major donor about the money. When details of financial misappropriation emerged, the donor terminated future donations, a loss of about $2 million per year. In the face of such problems, Aguillard spun an anti-Calvinism narrative and refused to renew the contracts for three “Calvinist-leaning” professors, which placated LBC’s Hankins, who opposes Calvinistic theology.
The administrative storm affected the student body as well. Students struggled to focus on their academics as administrators replaced their favorite professors. A spirit of intimidation kept the faculty quiet for fear of repercussions, and former student Drew Wales recalls threats of disciplinary actions for speaking out against the administration.
What the future holds for LC is a mystery. But the college—and Christian colleges—should study the way College of the Ozarks has dealt with challenges: strong leadership, fiscal discipline, and adherence to a core vision.