Jason Abell of Bethlehem College and Seminary recounts the story of a newly married Christian graduate who had attended a Christian school with his wife. The couple wanted to go into ministry but now owed $110,000. “I sat stunned,” Abell recounts, “reeling as I tried to imagine being young, newly married, and shackled to a massive ball and chain of seemingly endless payments.” (Bethlehem charges about $6,000 annually for tuition and books.)

Will the current shakeout turn into an across-the-board meltdown for Christian higher education? That depends on a lot of variables — the economy, the federal and state budget deficits, consumer behavior, and whether new, more cost-effective options become widely available. Certainly schools, even some Christian ones, have limited economic incentive to cut costs as long as federal dollars continue to flow.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see big changes ahead. Accordingly, I recommend that hard-pressed Christian parents — and I’m one — use caution and be prepared for anything in the days ahead. Obviously, the less debt we can saddle our kids with, all other things being equal, the better.

In the meantime, what is to be done for those of us suffering from tuition sticker shock? At these prices, of course, majors and schools must be chosen with utmost care. Few students have the luxury to make the mistakes I did.

Here are a few other modest suggestions, just to keep the discussion going:

• Some organizations will pay off medical school debt if young doctors go to the mission field. Could not some Christian philanthropists and organizations adopt this kind of model on a larger scale?

• Perhaps Christian agencies and businesses can recruit, train and hire students out of high school without requiring them to go through four expensive years of college. Is there a role for churches here? A college degree is an indicator of future success, not a guarantee.

• Christian colleges could start a rational program of cutting costs now — eyeing multiple layers of administrators, superfluous programs, and ambitious but ultimately unnecessary building plans that don’t directly impact their goal of educating the next generation — before circumstances force them into taking precipitous action. And they could pass on the savings to the rest of us.

Skyrocketing costs at our Christian colleges are not just a matter of family economics. If the church is to be salt and light in our dark and decaying society, we need to continue releasing well educated, biblically grounded people into the world. This cannot happen if the current ruinous student debt loads continue.

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at stanguthrie.com/blog.

Publication date: May 18, 2012