Christian colleges and universities have a diversity problem.
While only about 50 percent of public school students are white, 66 percent of students enrolled in colleges belonging to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities are white. That disparity draws attention to a disconnect between Christian higher education and the nation’s growing ethnic community, said Pete Menjares, a professor at Vanguard University and a senior fellow for diversity at the CCCU.
Menjares works with schools to identify racial and ethnic blind spots and figure out ways to attract and retain minority high school graduates.
“Some believe this is a kingdom imperative,” he said. “They are actively recruiting and are sensitive to campus climate issues. They’re actively engaged in the local community, working with leaders and churches to identify and support students. Others are further behind and still need to be convinced that this needs to be a priority.”
While some Christian universities and seminaries have scholarship programs designed to attract minority students, few are working together to address the problem in a more holistic way. A new effort launched in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination could change that.
As part of MLK50, a joint conference hosted in Memphis, Tenn., last week by The Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), 20 Christian universities and seminaries agreed to set aside scholarship funds specifically for Memphis students. The combined effort totaled $1.5 million in financial assistance.
Schools that did not already have a minority outreach program are viewing the Dream Forward Scholarship Initiative as a catalyst, said Brent Leatherwood, director of strategic partnerships for the ERLC.
“It’s almost like a pilot program,” he said. “Schools are interested in taking this to other cities and neighborhoods.”
While the Memphis program offers a small number of scholarships relative to the total enrollment in Christian higher education, the program’s most important and lasting effect could come from provoking replication, Menjares said.
“That’s my hope,” he said. “Every school will think about how they can do something similar. … Individual schools have their own programs, but I can’t think of anything else on this scale.”
The Dream Forward Scholarship Initiative stemmed from conversations between the conference organizers and the Memphis Christian Pastors Network. The local church leaders urged MLK50 organizers to do something that would leave a lasting legacy for the city. Although they didn’t ask for a scholarship fund, the pastors repeatedly mentioned education as one of the community’s most significant needs.
Leatherwood expects several more schools to join the program in the coming weeks. Local pastors will help identify prospective students and encourage them through the application process and eventual transition to college, a continued link to the community that will help ensure the students’ success.
While the scholarships won’t solve all the problems Memphis faces, Leatherwood said he hoped they will serve as a meaningful first step: “We’re not under any illusion that this will change everything. But this is a small step forward toward opening pathways to a quality higher education for some minority students in Memphis.”
The Rev. Rufus Smith, senior minister at Hope Church Memphis and executive chairman of the Memphis Christian Pastors Network, credited the conference organizers with listening to the Christian community’s concerns “after some initial paternalistic missteps.”
“One of those concerns was the optic of appearing in Memphis for two days but leaving without a meaningful milestone to mark its continuous caring,” he said. “What we thought would be five Memphis student scholarships has turned out to be 24 as of yesterday!”