The Prohibitive (?) Cost of Biblical Studies (in Illinois)

As someone who teaches religion and who specializes in biblical studies, I perceive a great importance in learning to read the Bible critically. Then again, teachers always think their subject is important. Yet putting aside the religious significance of the Bible among most North American Christianities, its impact reaches beyond these communities. The Bible has incredible rhetorical weight in discussing social and legal issues.

For example, in recent efforts to enact “religious liberty” laws, i.e. laws that allow (mainly) Christians to discriminate against LGBTQ people, this discrimination has been defended by claiming that some people behave this way only because the Bible tells them to. Few point to specific passages that require a Christian to deny goods and services to people who sin—or at least commit a sin that also serves as a social boundary marker for their community (much less effort has been put toward denying goods and services to adulterers or divorcé(e)s or unwed fathers or gossips or slanderers or…)—because most people just assume that the people citing the Bible know what they’re talking about. 1 Corinthians 8 has been pointed to (http://religionnews.com/2014/02/26/bible-prohibit-providing-services-sex-weddings-theologians-weigh/), but this passage has to do with eating meat from an animal previously sacrificed to another god, not vending goods to homosexuals or any other group (more on this in a future post). It has been rightly found to be a misapplication of the text by Evangelical scholars, but this misses the point: invoking the Bible shields your beliefs/practices from outright criticism, and due to the general ignorance of what is actually in the Bible, and the inexperience of the public in reading it, one can simply say “Bible” and trust that only Christian religious leaders and Bible nerds (like me) will bother looking it up.

The Bible has been used to justify the absence of environmental policies (after all this is God’s creation—he’ll protect it, right?), to support or to undermine public education, to fight against more inclusive marriage laws, to fight against the abolition of slavery and also to fight for it. Our elected officials continue to swear on Bibles, and even a thrice-married adulterer felt compelled to cite a verse from “two Corinthians” when he entered into politics.

With the Bible being such a culturally influential set of writings, its critical study is well worth our time, energy, and money. Understanding the content of the Bible (there’s nothing in there about abortion?!?), the cultural milieu in which it was written (limiting divorce protects women from impoverishment?!?), and the rhetorical arguments of the Bible (Paul chastises his audience for judging others after criticizing homosexual practices?!?) would help to put some of these public uses and abuses of the Bible into perspective. This would be useful for anyone in American society, whether Christian or not — reading the Bible does not need to be a devotional exercise.

A question I want to explore here, though, is: who even has access to a cursory introduction to the critical study of the Bible in an academic setting? Not: who takes advantage of such an opportunity, but who even can enroll (often voluntarily) in a critical course on the Bible should they choose to do so.

I want to look at students enrolled in a college or university that offers a critical course in biblical studies (or BS, versus schools that have no biblical studies, or NBS), and I want to use Illinois as my sample area.

  • Around 86% of Illinois high school students get a diploma. Some of the remaining 14% will get a GED, but the odds of them seeking higher education is relatively low. Therefore, the odds of them ever having access to the critical study of the Bible is also low.
  • At least in 2010 (http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/?year=2010&level=nation&mode=data&state=0&submeasure=63), 58.7% of Illinois high school graduates went directly to college. A significant portion of the remaining 41.3% will go to college at some later time, but the probability falls again that they will ever have access to the critical study of the Bible in an academic setting.

So roughly half of Illinois’ young people will pursue higher education out of the gate, with the other half much less likely to be in an academic environment again. There are a number of barriers to going to college, and I am not arguing that it should be a universal requirement. Far from it. But one of the major barriers is the cost, and this is what I want to look at in more detail: what are the costs of biblical studies specifically? Is the cost of gaining access to this study a barrier in itself?

I looked at 62 colleges and universities in Illinois that enroll undergraduate students (if you’re going for a graduate degree in biblical studies or theology, access doesn’t seem to be an issue for you in the way I mean it here). I omitted technical/vocational schools, and I omitted schools like Moody Bible Institute because, again, access is not the issue for someone pursuing a pastoral career and who wants to study the Bible devotionally, not critically. I’m concerned with typical college students pursuing any number of unrelated degrees who might benefit from a course in biblical studies.

The results show that cost is a significant barrier to access, even for college students:

  • Half the colleges and universities in Illinois (31/62) offer at least one critical course in biblical studies taught by a biblical scholar. That’s rather impressive to me, and I suspect it’s a higher proportion than most states. There were three schools with “Bible as/in Literature” courses taught by English professors which I did not include in this category, although an argument could be made that paying attention to the composition and rhetoric of some biblical texts would still be beneficial and perhaps more attractive to students who were afraid they would be preached to for a whole semester.
  • The average cost of tuition and mandatory fees for one year of full-time enrollment overall was $23,519.11. Of course financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants offsets this cost at many of the institutions surveyed, and a more thorough study would have to take that into account. However, such a cost may prove to be a barrier to someone considering enrollment who was not aware of funding opportunities (especially first-generation students), was not confident (s)he would get them, or who was not willing to take out loans of this size.
  • The average cost of attending a BS was $30,130.91, almost seven thousand dollars more than average! Meanwhile, the average cost of NBS was $16,907.30, roughly 56% of the cost of attending a BS, or over $13,000 less expensive on average. For a four-year degree (rarer and rarer…), one has to be willing to spend (on average) an additional $52,000 to have the privilege to study the Bible critically with a trained biblical scholar. A greater proportion of BS schools are private (Christian) schools, whereas state-funded schools and two-year colleges are much less likely to teach biblical studies. Right now I teach at Loyola University Chicago in a department I am quite proud of. Loyola is the fourth most expensive BS school (more expensive than any NBS schools), which costs $44,847 in tuition and fees per year. That’s over $21,000 more than the average Illinois school.

cost

The top row represents tuitions at NBS schools, with the quartiles and median marked. The box represents the middle 50% of schools. The bottom row represents tuitions at BS schools.

  • These additional costs correlate with much lower enrollment. The average enrollment at a BS is 5,841 total undergraduates, while at an NBS it is 12,246 undergraduates. So 67.7% of Illinois undergraduates attend an NBS rather than a BS.
  • Taking enrollment into account helps to calculate the average tuition for a BS student (not institution), which is $25,470.70. Yet the average tuition for an NBS student goes down to $8,985.91, with an overall average of $14,426.20. (This also makes the cost for Loyola students paying full tuition over $30,000 more than the average Illinois student per year). These numbers are lower than the average per institution because lower-cost schools tend to have higher enrollment. What this means is that attending a BS costs the average student more than $16,000 extra to attend per year, or an additional $64,000 to get a four-year degree.

Less than a third of Illinois students are enrolled in a college or university that even teaches the critical study of the Bible. Once they’re at one, there is no guarantee that they will take such a course. At some schools, it is a requirement. But it is a 100-level course, for example, at Dominican University but not required, although it satisfies a core requirement. Intro to Old Testament or New Testament are 200-level courses at Loyola and are not required, and most students will take Intro to Theology or Intro to Religious Studies (the course I usually teach) to satisfy their core requirement. (That is why there are four times as many sections of THEO 100 this semester as there are sections of OT and NT combined).

So this minority of students will have access to a course in biblical studies, but it is unlikely that they will take one, meaning only a tiny portion of Illinois residents will learn to read the Bible critically and academically in any capacity. Although the numbers would vary to an extent, I suspect that similarly tiny fractions of students will ever take a course in theology or ethics, either.

Biblical studies seems to be pricing itself out of relevance. Put another way, critical biblical studies is a privilege of the wealthy and the upwardly mobile. Students who have to make tight fiscal decisions and attend a less expensive college, at least while completing gen ed requirements, will most likely never take a course in biblical studies. As higher education is reimagined more and more as vocational training, and as the cost to (economic) benefit ratio of attending college declines, we run the risk of becoming even more elitist, even more irrelevant.

Summary:*

Biblical Studies No Biblical Studies Overall
Total Enrollment 181,073 379,618 560,691
Avg. Enrollment 5,841 12,246 9,043
Avg. Cost/Inst. $30,130.91 $16,907.30 $23,519.11
Avg. Cost/Stud. $25,470.70 $8,985.91 $14,426.20

* Some of this data may be out of date — college websites are notoriously difficult to navigate, and some schools do not publicly share tuition data without the submission of personal information to the school. So these numbers should be taken as approximate, although it is unlikely that any updated information would greatly influence the summary data.

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