How Much Federal Money Do the BYUs Receive?

The Short Answer: About $275,000,000 a year.

The Long Answer: Read on

BYU is a private institution and can do whatever it wants to do. If you don’t believe me, read any comment section on any recent article about BYU’s accreditation status, labor practices, or student policies. Enforced wokeness is for public schools only, or private schools that just don’t know any better. By refusing to sup at the government’s table, the BYUs free themselves from the tyranny of the government’s yoke. Or so the story goes.

The problem is that the story is false. Really false. Like most private schools in the country, the BYUs derive a huge portion of their funding from federal pell grants and student loans given to students, through their financial aid offices. Like almost all of the things that happen in higher education, federal financial aid to undergraduate students is carefully tracked and dutifully reported every year to the Department of Education through the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System, or IPEDS to those of us who use it every day and think of it fondly.

I will use the IPEDS data from 2018-19, even though the 2019-20 data is available, because I want to combine it with Treasury Department data that is only available through 2018. But the numbers do not change dramatically at any of the BYUs because their enrollment is relatively stable from year to year. So, here are all of the financial aid dollars that the three BYUs received in the 2018-19 academic year:

And that is just for undergraduates. BYU-Provo also receives federal student loan money for its 1,800 or so graduate students, including students at the law school and in the MBA program. Unfortunately, the good people at IPEDS care much more about undergraduate financial aid than graduate loans, so we can only estimate, using national averages, that 57% of BYU’s graduate students (1026 students) received an average of $25,000 per year, for an additional $25,550,000.

To this, the Provo campus also adds major federal research grants through entities like the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health.

We can actually get a good picture of the total federal investment in BYU-Provo from the Treasury Department’s Datalab site, which reports a total federal investment in BYU-Provo of $118,271,125 for 2018. Once we back out the undergraduate financial aid, we are left with $34,139,345 for both graduate financial aid and other federal grants and contracts. If my guesses about graduate aid are correct, this means that BYU-P received around 9 million dollars in federal research grants in 2018.

All of this amounts to a conservative estimate of a federal investment of $275,961,371. Or a little more than a quarter of a BILLION dollars a year.

The primary purpose of regional accreditation is to determine a university’s eligibility to receive these funds by providing the educational services that society, through the federal government, expects institutions of higher education to provide. This means that an accredited university must teach the subjects that it claims to teach in a way that is consistent with the professional expectations of those fields (since regional accreditation is usually required to transfer credits to another university).

It also means that universities cannot discriminate against students on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression unless they receive a religious exemption from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (which all three BYU campuses have received for their policies on gender, gender expression, and sexuality). The federal government imposes these requirements as a condition of investing a considerable amount of money in those universities, their programs, and their students.

Can the BYUs kick themselves loose from government control? Of course they can. All they have to do is come up with three hundred million dollars or so every year to replace these federal dollars in their operating budgets. But until they do, arguments like “BYU is a private school and can do what it wants” are little more than Ayn Rand fan fiction. That is simply not how things work on our planet.

Comments

  1. Interesting—BYU-I has about 2/3 the enrollment of BYU and takes nearly twice as much federal funding in the form of grants and loans to students. Are we seeing a class divide between the two universities here?

  2. I suppose it’s splitting hairs, but BYU is getting that money through the students who choose to enroll who are eligible for the student loans and Pell Grants. The Feds aren’t just handing that money out to BYU directly.

  3. Ensign Peak can write a check if it came to that. But will it come to that?

  4. Since the 1950s when IKE established the Dept of Education, the BYU Board of Trustees debated about whether or not to accept federal dollars. Ezra Taft Benson and Harold Lee rejected it; other apostles supported it. By the 1960s when the Justice Dept investigated BYU for alleged civil rights violations, they threatened to strip BYU of all federal funding unless BYU recruited Black students and faculty. It seems clear to me that the federal govt is no longer playing hardball with BYU.

  5. Kristine says:

    Barney, I think the bigger worry is that Ensign Peak would NOT write that check, and the class divide between Latter-day Saints who can afford BYU (and afford to live in school districts that have accepted feeder high schools) would just widen. Culture wars are costly.

  6. Maybe it is splitting hairs, but as you state in parenthetical in your post, BYU is exempt from Title IX. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/t9-rel-exempt/brigham-young-university-response-01032022.pdf

    So I don’t follow the argument that the belief that BYU doesn’t have to follow government non discrimination rules as fan fiction. As far as their Title IX exemption, it is true.

    That said, Ayn Rand and BYU both annoy me as well.
    I absolutely disagree with some of the ridiculous stories I’ve heard lately coming from the BYU campus. I’ve had to counsel kids from my ward that are devastated when they don’t get into BYU. And I always say, there are better schools and better places to go out there waiting for you.

  7. Kristine says:

    They don’t have a blanket exemption from Title IX. They have to apply for exemptions from the provisions that specifically impinge on religious free exercise. In practice, those exemptions are always granted, but they do, theoretically, still have to be trying to meet the aims of Title IX to the extent that it is compatible with religious belief. You know, the religion that says “all are alike unto God” and “…there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Which obviously requires discrimination…

  8. Kristine:

    I agree it isn’t a blanket exemption. I linked to the explanatory letter on the exemption directly for anyone who wants to read it. My main takeaway is, if anything is going to change at BYU re: discrimination on gender and LGBT status, it isn’t going to come from Title IX enforcement. I do hope things change internally.

  9. Perpetual education funds student loans and grants to replace pell grants?

  10. Rereading my comment, I did overstate it. They are exempt Title IX regs re: gender identity and sexual orientation but, as stated, only so long as Title IX conflicts with religious doctrine. Which would be a very interesting discussion in terms of where the conflict is.

    Not to derail a very interesting discussion on this issue…..

    But, Kristine: your book on Eugene England was wonderful.

  11. Bob Ligma says:

    queuno, the money does come through students who qualify for Pell grants and subsidized loans, so keep in mind that many of those students would go somewhere else. You would see plenty of students who would still go to Provo, just the rich who can afford college without aid, leading to a greater class divide. I don’t know who would go to BYUI without financial aid. It would shut them down.

  12. Michael Austin says:

    Keep in mind that, if BYU were to lose its accreditation, which is the mechanism that conveys eligibility to receive federal financial aid, it would suffer enormous reputational damage in the process. Its graduates would no longer be able to go to graduate and professional schools, and many of its professional programs (law, business, engineering) would lose their professional certifications as a result. I do not think that there is even a remote possibility that this will happen. But it would not be quite as simple as just increasing prices and attracting a wealthier clientele. The value of the degree would drop sharply, just as the price would increase dramatically.

  13. Michael, you should specify what courses you’re talking about. If you’re referencing Michael Ing’s guest post about religion classes, then you’re making a really weak argument that’s not going anywhere. I assume you are, since an “accredited university must teach the subjects that it claims to teach in a way that is consistent with the professional expectations of those fields” summarizes what he’s saying about religion classes. Please let me know if I’m reading you wrong, but as it is, it’s hard to take what you’re saying seriously.

    Here are BYU’s required religion courses:

    The Eternal Family
    Foundations of the Restoration
    Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel
    Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon

    What are the professional expectations for teaching the Book of Mormon, or Foundations of the Restoration? Do you think any sane accreditor is going to touch that question, let alone try to argue that BYU should change its Book of Mormon curriculum, or hire different people to teach a course on the Eternal Family? Honestly, this sounds like bad right-wing agitprop: The Federal Government Will Force BYU to Teach the Book of Mormon like a Secular School or Else!!!

    There are other courses where arguing for national standards makes sense and might even have some traction, but I don’t know what courses you might have in mind. Even in that case, there’s also the not inconsiderable factor of a 6-3 split on the Supreme Court in favor of justices who are handing out religious exemptions like candy at Halloween. There are a lot of things not to like about our 6-3 Supreme Court, but the church’s legal department is probably sleeping soundly these days.

  14. Michael Austin says:

    C. Kee.

    I am not trying to make any arguments at all. I am trying to give a clear explanation of the constraints that all private religious schools operate under, based on 15 years of experience as the primary accreditation offer at two private religious universities, one Catholic and the other Methodist. I did not make any arguments about any specific courses because that was not the purpose of the post.

    However, if I were to make an argument about the courses that you list, it would be very similar to the one that Michael Ing makes in his letter. These courses should not have college credit attached to them. Sure, federal accreditors are not going to try to tell them how to teach the Proclamation on the family or the Teachings of the Living Prophets. But neither should they, in my opinion, allow these courses to count towards a degree that is being partially paid for by the federal government.

    College credit does two things. First, it ensures the transferability of courses, so that my calculus class at BYU can transfer to Harvard or Stanford or a local community college and still count as a calculus class (just kidding, I actually never took calculus). When my university receives a transcript, the first (and often the last) question we ask is, “was the originating institution regionally accredited.” if it is, we accept the class as something in our catalog, or we grant general credit towards the degree based on the number of transfer hours.

    The classes you list should not transfer anywhere but to the other BYUs. They do not meet any other institution’s standards for what a credit-bearing class should be. It would be tantamount to fraud to take a BYU Eternal Family class and try to transfer it into any other Family Science program in the country, or to take a BYU New Testament class and transfer it into a secular religious studies program. They just aren’t designed to map onto the secular religious studies curricular standards.

    The second thing that credit-bearing courses do is count towards the total of 120 credit hours that all students at all accredited institutions take for a bachelor’s degree. If I were to take 120 hours at BYU, with 14 of those hours being Religious Ed. classes that do not meet any non-LDS disciplinary standards, then I have only taken 106 hours of courses that would be credit-bearing at any other university. If I have been federally funded, this means that I have not really received the full value of the degree that the government paid for.

    LDS students at many other colleges and universities take the same classes that BYU students take, but they take them as institute classes that do not count towards their degree. What Micahel argues, and I support him, is that these classes should be offered, taken, and required at BYU, but that they should not bear credit that counts towards the 120 hour federally required credit hour minimum or that could possibly be accepted in transfer by other, non-LDS institutions. This strikes me as a legitimate compromise between the needs of the institution and the legitimate federal regulation of credit hours for programs that receive federal aid.

  15. g.wesley says:

    Excellent points!

    On the topic of BYU as a ‘private’ university and its ‘private’ property: the purchase of Y mtn was a government handout/discount, orchestrated by collusion of LDS elected officials.

    Quoting …

    2012: At the request of BYU, Representative Jason E. Chaffetz (BA ’89) and Senator Orrin G. Hatch (BS ’59), both alumni and members of the Utah congressional delegation, introduce legislation to allow BYU to purchase the Y, the land surrounding the Y, and the upper portion of the Y Trail from the U.S. Forest Service. They receive assistance from Utah senator Michael S. Lee (BA ’94, JD ’97), Utah congressman Rob Bishop, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

    March 2016: For $180,000 BYU finalizes purchase of 81 acres on Y Mountain.

    https://magazine.byu.edu/article/an-ode-to-the-y/

  16. heterodoxcl says:

    It might be interesting to look at the federal grants (for research) that come in to BYU. Per capita (i.e. per professor) it is probably much smaller than actual research universties, but I suspect that it’s still at least in the low eight digits.

    When I came to teach at BYU many years ago, I brought a large federal grant with me (and received several large grants since then). I was talking with the Associate Vice President who was over research and grants, and he actually seemed to be quite averse to federal grants. He stated several times that “The Brethren” never wanted to be “beholden” to funding from the US government. ETB was no longer alive, but his legacy still lived on.

    This attitude about federal funding unfortunately had some unfortunate consequences, at least as far as compliance with federal guidelines for grants. In the case of the last grant that I received, we explicitly promised the federal agency that we would do A, B, and C over the next few years. But once the money (a lot of money) was spent, BYU was glad to completely ignore those promises.

    It’s kind of the way that BYU handles a lot of relationships with people outside of BYU. BYU is the “Lord’s University”, and others should feel priveleged to be able to interact with them. But BYU will handle those interactions on their own terms, even if it goes against academic or professional norms.

    No wonder that BYU has a bit of a reputation in academic circles for being pretentious and condenscending, even when they are often nowhere near the level of other institutions in terms of academic excellence.

  17. anonforthis says:

    These conversations about BYU (-P -H -I) are surreal to me. I don’t believe the Title IX exemptions are anything more than political decisions that we will enforce against egregious race discrimination, but otherwise stay hands off religion. I don’t believe schools should be treated like churches in the first place. I see a heavily subsidized program even without federal funds that caters to a sliver of LDS youth. And I see programmatic, faculty hiring and firing, and enrollment decisions that have already made church schools suspect for any hiring or job placement I want to do, other than within the same church programs and schools. If it weren’t that friends and family who are important to me are already embedded in the BYU system and critically affected by these goings on, I would dump the whole mess under the label “decisions by an insular group of eccentrics cut off from the real world” and turn my attention elsewhere. But in fact friends and family do care and are affected and I’m sitting here steaming.

  18. The love of money is the root of all evil.

    Anyone who thought they have a say in the appropriation of tithing funds, entirely missed the point.

    The other, much more malleable pillar of disagreement, is the appropriation of tax income. The only LGBT+ claim to differentiation in population statistics is the inability to copulate. Anything else sits squarely in the DSM-5. We all know where all of these statistical coefficients and correlations stand: more than enough room for both sides to coexist peacefully. As a tax payer, I will continue to support BYU’s position. The more I hear either end of the discussion stick, the more I see the Church’s position is the correct middle ground and will continue to vote accordingly.

  19. Do you view $90 million in guaranteed to be paid back loans, issued by a bank as federal money?

    If the pel grants and loans went away, BYU would still thrive and students would still go to BYU. Do you disagree?

  20. Emily U says:

    Michael, I’m surprised you had to estimate the amount BYU-P received in federal grants and contracts. Is this not published? The large private university I work for publishes that in annual reports. It’s unthinkable not to.

  21. never forget says:

    @ Emily U how is that unthinkable? The Church doesn’t publish anything regarding its finances, why would it do something like that for BYU? I would assume that is the natural position of the Church.

  22. Emily U says:

    I re-read my comment and I hope it doesn’t sound like I think you didn’t check their annual report, I’m only trying to say I’m surprised that the amount of federal research awards isn’t published. That’s standard practice!

  23. Michael Austin says:

    Emily–no worries. I could not find it in any reports published online. I did not do a comprehensive search, so it is possible that this is buried in a report somewhere that I didn’t find. But they do not make it easy. I suspect that this happens because, unlike most research universities who are proud of the research grants they receive, BYU has always cultivated an ethos of self-reliance–which is why so many people are surprised that they accept any federal money at all. The folklore in the Church has it that BYU nobly rejects federal funds so that the gub’mind can’t ever tell them what to do. Occasionally, they stage-manage a dramatic refusal of federal funds (as they did with the CARES Act funding in 2020 and 2021), but these are photo ops, not reality, and are probably meant to impress potential donors with their self-relaint stance.

    Since the Treasury Department does publish the total amount of federal funds received, and the Department of Education publishes the undergraduate financial aid received, we can make a fairly educated guess about how the balance is divided up between graduate financial aid, grants, contracts, and et. ceteras. So the added value of finding out exactly how the extra 36 million dollars is divided up is relatively small. The easily accessible data gives us a pretty good picture of how much federal money the BYUs receive every year.

  24. “as they did with the CARES Act funding in 2020 and 2021), but these are photo ops, not reality, and are probably meant to impress potential donors with their self-relaint stance.”

    Do you really think BYU turned down tens of millions of dollars as a PR stunt? That’s a far more superficial take then the alleged antigubbermint types you presume to understand.

    Your whole take here essentially seems to be similar to, “hah, BYU benefits from roads and roads aren’t possible without federal spending therefore BYU is full of it when they preach self reliance!”

    It’s very sophomoric.

  25. Michael Austin says:

    Sute,

    Given that the decision to reject CARES act funding came not long after the Church’s 100 billion dollar investment fund was leaked by a whistleblower, and they were facing extremely harsh criticism from both members and the public for sitting on that much money and not being transparent about it, yes, I absolutely believe that the decision to reject CARES funding was motivated by PR concerns. And frankly, if the Church’s PR people did not suggest that they decline the funds at that time, given the nature of the criticism, then the PR people were not doing their jobs. It was a very savvy PR move that actually did blunt a lot of the criticism they were receiving.

    And BYU did not turn down just the funds that would have gone to their bottom line. Half of the disbursement was earmarked for students, with the institution acting only as the disbursing agent. So BYU turned down money that would have gone directly to its students to relieve the financial pressures of the pandemic and then did not make any of their own funds available to their students except as short-term loans.

    And there is no real comparison between roads and financial aid funds. Financial aid funds are given directly to the university and distributed to students through a financial aid office. Universities have to accept a fairly significant regulatory regime in order to qualify to receive them. Anybody can be at the other end of a road.

  26. And Sute, it wasn’t just BYU. Harvard also turned down CARES money, as (iirc—it’s 1:30 am here and I’m not actually going to Google around for it) did a number of other schools. It turned out to be bad PR for universities with strong endowments to accept the money; I’m not convinced it was to demonstrate the self-reliance of BYU, though I didn’t follow it closely. But it was definitely a public relations move, just like it was with Harvard and other organizations that technically qualified for the money but didn’t colloquially qualify for it.

  27. Sam,

    Harvard actually said they would accept it and then reversed themselves when criticism mounted, including criticism from the Trump Administration:

    https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/23/842454705/harvard-and-other-universities-turn-down-relief-funds-amid-swell-of-criticism

  28. C. Keen says:

    Michael: If you and Michael Ing were simply proposing that BYU students should take Institute courses rather than religion classes, we could have a reasonable discussion about the advantages (there are some) and disadvantages.(which I think outweigh the advantages).

    But talking about this in the context of accreditation is silly. I know you’ve seen enough accreditation documents to know what accreditation is for and how it works, and what you’re saying is nonsensical. Accreditation does not ensure that a calculus course at one school is equivalent to a calculus course at another school: that kind of curricular alignment is a very different process and is handled at a different level. And in fact it’s highly unusual, because every program approaches their topics in a slightly different way.

    Accreditation does not decide whether a university’s mission is legitimate. Instead they look at if the school’s resources and organization (and a hundred other things) are arranged so that it can be successful at achieving its mission. BYU is quite clear about its religious mission. The idea that a university should not offer courses in an area central to its mission is absurd.

    The focus on transfer credit is misplaced. If you’re a Dance major at one school, and then transfer to a business college with no dance program, those dance courses will end up as fairly useless credits, no matter how rigorous they were. It means you’ll have some wasted credits – and that should be a good thing, because it means that the two schools aren’t the same and there was actually a point in moving from one to another. Or if you’re a history major at one school and took American Civil War as a freshman survey, but then you transfer to a school where American Civil War is a senior capstone course, you’re out of luck again and all you’ll get is some useless history elective credit.

    So BYU’s religion courses not being the same as courses at other schools is a whole lot of “So what?” They end up not transferring as anything but nondescript credit, but that’s a common cost of transferring from one school to another. What makes them credit-bearing courses for an accreditor isn’t adherence to some national standard for religion courses, but that they involve normal amounts of classroom and homework time; have learning objectives and evidence of students meeting those objectives; and serve the university’s mission. If you think the government has a compelling interest in the content of a religion course from a religious institution because it has supplied some funding, you really need to study the First Amendment and relevant Supreme Court decisions.

    What makes this discussion so ridiculous is the complete lack of proportionality in the problem you see and the tools you’re proposing to achieve your desired outcome. BYU’s required religion courses are not equivalent to courses in other departments at other schools (although some of the electives may be). I think everyone understands this and there are really no dramatic consequences. If it helps, think of them as two different disciplines. If you want to transfer from BYU and be a Religion major elsewhere, you might not get anything more than generalized credits. So what? You’ll have to take classes to fulfill the requirements at your new school, and life will go on. Nothing about this situation suggests a problem that should be solved by threatening the accreditation of a major university with a healthy budget and happy students. When was the last time a major, well-functioning university lost accreditation because some general ed courses weren’t exactly equivalent to courses somewhere else?

    So I think you and Michael Ing are being very silly by gesturing ominously at accreditation. That’s unfortunate on the one hand because it gets in the way of a rational discussion of Institute vs. religious educattion courses. On the other hand, I also think it’s harmful because it feeds a widespread misunderstanding of what accreditation is and what it can accomplish, and it nourishes a fundamentally misplaced fantasy that the Accreditor will Finally Force BYU to Do the Right Thing. It won’t. If you want things to change, you’ll have to convince the people currently in charge based on the merits of your proposal.

  29. C. Keen, it’s interesting that you are so defensive and so dismissive on this topic (“silly,” “nonsensical,” “absurd,” “ridiculous,” “very silly”), especially when you are suggesting that the process of university accreditation, at least for religion classes, is essentially meaningless. If I am reading you correctly, you believe that religious universities can make up their own rules for religion classes, and as long as students sit in a classroom for two hours a week, they should get two hours of university credit, and accrediting agencies should simply rubber stamp that situation. Accreditation agencies, however, are set up to ensure that students get a quality education that has academic legitimacy. They give a great deal of leeway to religious institutions with religious missions (as is appropriate), but if Religious Education at BYU falls short of standard criteria of evaluation, such as professors not having appropriate qualifications for the classes they teach, or professors not being able to determine their own curriculum, or hiring practices that tend to exclude those with professional credentials, that could be a problem. And if more than ten percent of the credit hours required for graduation at BYU have little academic content, that is a problem for the university as a whole.

  30. g.wesley says:

    ‘So what.’

    Indeed, so what that the curriculum is determined by religious leaders with no relevant academic training?

    So what that some of the faculty themselves have none either — and that the board and top admin prefer it that way?

    So what that faculty and students who do want to take an academic approach to the study of religion can’t, without risking their employment or degree?

    So what that hiring practices are clearly discriminatory?

    So what that some of the faculty have taught discriminatory things both in the classroom as well as in ecclesiastical settings?

    I can’t see a problem with any of this, and neither would any accreditation agency. It’s fine.

  31. Just one more comment. For me, transfer credit is not the primary issue. As I explained in the other thread, I went to BYU excited about receiving college-level instruction about the scriptures and my faith tradition. What I got, for the most part, was warmed-over seminary, and the situation has gotten worse since then. If religion courses require no special expertise to teach, then they should not be university courses (and indeed, many of the same courses, with the same non-academic textbooks, are taught by volunteers with no training in stakes across the country). It is okay for Religious Education to be its own thing, and it may have its own sort of value, but it is dishonest to assert that religion classes at BYU are equivalent to classes taken elsewhere on campus in math, science, the social sciences, or humanities. One of the purposes of accreditation is to make sure that universities can deliver on what they promise. Students who attend BYU expecting university instruction in religion with similar levels of expertise and rigor as in other departments will generally be disappointed. And those calorically empty courses will make up a substantial portion of their required credit hours.

  32. Robert, forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you aren’t familiar with academia. That’s okay, but accreditation doesn’t work like you think it would. Accreditors don’t compare syllabuses to some imaginary standard of what the ideal Anthro 342 syllabus should look like. Instead, they look at things like: Is there a syllabus? Does the syllabus have stated learning outcomes? Do those learning outcomes articulate with the departmental and institutional learning outcomes? Is there evidence that students are achieving those outcomes so that the institution furthers its mission? It’s quite possible for BYU religious studies courses to fulfill all those criteria.

    So, what’s the appropriate qualification to teach The Eternal Family? As long as the instructor has some kind of degree, it’s hard to imagine any accreditor touching that can of worms. If BYU tasks a former bishop or mission president with the job, what accreditor is going to say they know better than BYU who should be teaching LDS doctrine? Ain’t gonna happen. Besides, just about every university out there has made their own compromises when it comes to teaching, sometimes for good reasons (experienced professionals teaching practice-based courses) and sometimes not (cheap labor).

    I don’t know where the idea comes from that professors not determining their own curriculum is some kind of violation of academic norms. Most departments that offer multiple sections of the same course have some level of coordination, from using the same textbook to common exams. There are appropriate and inappropriate levels of uniformity, of course, but that’s hardly unique to BYU or religious ed. And accreditors are not going to care that all sections of Plan of Salvation are using the same materials, if they are.

    I can only speak for the limited number of current BYU students I know personally, but they have high academic standards, and generally they have liked their current religion courses.

    Could BYU religious education be improved? Probably. All those curricular changes are signs of people on the ground trying to improve things. There are probably other approaches that could be as or even more successful. But, again, it has to be argued on the merits. Imagining a Grand Accreditor who will force BYU to chage is a distraction. I want to say a silly distraction, but that’s probably unfair, because it’s easy for people without academic experience to have incorrect ideas of what accreditation is for and how it works. So I probably should have toned down that part of my original comment. It’s not silly or absurd to imagine, just very detached from how accreditation actually works.

  33. g.wesley says:

    C. Keen: have you read the actual standards?

    https://nwccu.org/accreditation/standards-policies/standards/

  34. C. Keen, thanks for toning things down. This is an important conversation to have. I am, in fact, a tenured professor who has been through the accreditation cycle more than once. I have also been an outside reviewer for department self-studies at other universities. Questions such as “Does this course have a syllabus with stated learning outcomes?” and “Is there evidence that students are meeting those outcomes?” are important, but they hardly constitute the essence of a quality education. Otherwise, the accreditation process would be much, much easier than it is. I am probably not as familiar with Religious Education at BYU as you are, but let’s take another look at a couple of the points you made.

    Qualified faculty. At my university there are courses taught by faculty out of field, usually with degrees in related fields, but those are exceptions, and if they recur regularly they have to be justified during accreditation. BYU offers courses in the Old and New Testaments, which are obviously well-established fields of study in which people can earn graduate degrees. Most BYU faculty teaching those classes have degrees at least in related areas, but not all of them. For instance, Brad Wilcox (to take a prominent example) is scheduled to teach two sections of the New Testament in the Summer 2022 term to up to 120 students. Has Prof. Wilcox ever studied Greek? Has he taken any graduate courses in the New Testament? What does he know about the transmission of the text or the history of its interpretation? If he is as qualified to teach REL A 212 as anyone else in the Department of Ancient Scripture, then that course is not a college-level course. Of course, determining the qualifications for teaching the Book of Mormon is more difficult since there is no corresponding academic field, but I hope that professors would have some training in biblical studies, given what Latter-day Saints believe about the origins of that scripture. This is a case where accreditors might give wide berth to the department. The Eternal Family may be another such course, but I would again suggest that if any sort of degree is sufficient to teach the class, including a former mission president with only a bachelor’s degree, then it is not a university-level course and does not merit college credit. From what I can see, this is probably the case for all four of the cornerstone courses.

    Curriculum. Of course, individual professors may be constrained in which classes they offer, the content of their syllabi (especially in courses with multiple sections), and the textbooks they use, but those are generally decision made by consensus within the department. If I were an outside reviewer for, say, a biology department, and I learned that the courses offered and the textbooks used had been mandated by the board of trustees rather than by the biologists themselves, I would be concerned. If religion professors at BYU were not allowed to choose required textbooks for any of their classes (which I have heard is the case), I would be similarly concerned. It is fine for BYU’s board of trustees to require BYU students to receive specific instruction in our faith tradition as part of their education, but that does not automatically confer academic standards or merit to those experiences.

    Students may enjoy their religion classes, and those classes undoubtedly have spiritual value that is important to the mission of the university, but I am not convinced that all the courses taught in Religious Education are equally deserving of university credit. I have taught both Seminary and Institute for many years in my local stake, and I’m familiar with the curricular aims and materials of those programs. They serve a valuable function in the lives of students, but the Institute cornerstone courses are not that different from seminary, and they don’t deserve to be treated as the equivalent of university classes with academic methods and content. I have no fantasies about BYU losing its accreditation over its religion courses–overall, BYU is a very strong university–but the College of Religious Education is an anomaly on campus, and I hope that the accrediting agency takes a close look at what is happening there and makes some strong recommendations. BYU has a very difficult time changing in the absence of outside scrutiny and pressure, which is one of the primary purposes of going through the accreditation process in the first place. All universities can benefit from informed outsiders coming in at regular intervals and questioning the status quo.

  35. Michael Austin says:

    C. Keen,

    I am very familiar with how universities work and with how accreditation works. I have been the Chief Academic Officer at two religiously affiliated universities for a total of 14 years. I have written one full accreditation self-study and more than a dozen accreditation reports for specific programs. I have supervised accreditation visits and been part of accreditation teams. I know exactly what regional accreditors expect and what responsibilities universities have. I am not making stuff up when I talk about accreditation.

    Accreditation is a peer-review process. The six regional accreditors do not do accreditation visits or review accreditation materials. They coordinate large teams of peer reviewers to do these tasks. When an accreditation team visits us, they are not bureaucrats from Chicago or Denver or wherever, they are professors, presidents, deans, and provosts from other institutions within the same accrediting region (i.e. people like me), and one of the things that they are charged with doing is making sure that the things that the university is doing correspond to the generally accepted norms of higher education.

    One of the things that accreditors care most about is the credit hour. Congress funds education to a very specific credit-hour threshold. In order to qualify for financial aid, students have to be pursuing a legitimate degree program, and they have to be making at least 12 credit hours of progress towards that degree. What counts as a credit hour is extremely important to the process of accreditation.

    One of the chief characteristics of a credit hour is that it is portable. A student who takes 3 hours of credit at one accredited college is almost always able to transfer that as 3 hours of credit at another accredited college. Now, you are correct that sometimes this transfers in a way that fulfills requirements, and sometimes it transfers as purely elective credit. However, there is no such thing as “useless elective credit.” All credit hours from accredited institutions count towards the 120 hours required for a four-year degree. So, while my university may not have dance classes, if someone transfers in with 14 hours of dance credit, they will receive that credit and it will count towards the 120 hours that they need to graduate. If they are engineering students, then they probably won’t need the credit, since engineering majors tend to require more credit hours than most majors. But if they are, say, English majors, then that 14 hours of credit will replace 14 hours of something else that they would otherwise have taken. That is OK, though, since, even though we don’t have a dance program, those credit hours have been certified as legitimate college credits of the sort that, if we did have a dance program, would count as college work.

    This is also true of religion courses. I can tell you as a matter of plain fact that, if someone comes to us with three hours of credit in an “Old Testament” or a “New Testament” class, we are going to immediately give them general education credit for those courses because they come to us from an accredited institution. If someone comes with three hours of “The Eternal Family,” we are going to give them 3 hours of elective credit that dos not count towards a major or general education requirement, but that does count for elective credit that reduces the number of credit hours that they have to take.

    And this is why accreditors should care about religion classes at the university that do not meet disciplinary standards of what a college credit ought to be. If we created a class here called, “Why Republicans Are Evil and Want to Destroy the World” that consisted of nothing but looking at memes from left-wing political sites, we might require everyone to take it; it would be our right as a private university. But we would never offer credit for it. Our accreditors would not permit that, because we would be creating three hours (or whatever) credit that would fill a federal accreditation standard (120 credit hours) with a course that does not meet any conceivable standard of academic rigor or disciplinary integrity. Students could take it, we could require it, but we could not give it transcripted credit that could be transferred elsewhere or used to fill the 120 requirement here.

    What Michael Ing, Robert, and others are saying is that many BYU religion classes are similarly unable to meet the minimum industry standard for a credit hour. This is a problem if a BYU student transfers somewhere else. But it also a problem if someone stays at BYU and gets a college degree that does not have 120 legitimate credit hours. And if federal grants and loans are paying for that degree, the federal government has a legitimate interest in making sure that it gets what it pays for.

    Now, I have been clear that the accrediting body is not going to strip away BYU’s accreditation for this. But, in their accreditation visit, they are going to look at about 54 different standards (that is what the Higher Learning Commission, my accreditor, uses) and make suggestions about each one. It is very likely that they could suggest, or even strongly suggest, that religious education courses either meet the same standards as other credit-bearing courses or not carry academic credit at all. This would not deny BYU accreditation or make them ineligible for financial aid, but it would give them something that they had to work on and show progress towards during the next seven years before their next accreditation visit.

  36. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Thank you Michael, and Robert, for outlining the accreditation process, and for contextualizing the problems of accepting or transferring credit from courses that might not (in this case, do not) meet academic standards for the credit hours they are being given. Michael highlights what, for me, is something we haven’t touched on enough – the value of a degree where a significant portion (10%) of the credit hours are not from rigorous academic engagement. I did not attend BYU, so largely just watch the pearl-clutching from a distance, with a chuckle. But I had to compete with BYU students in applying to grad school, and on the job market, and 10% of the credits those students took had the potential to pad their GPA in a way that may have been unfair to other applicants. The religion classes they are taking aren’t too dissimilar from the seminary classes most of them would have already taken, or even from lessons they may have had on Sundays. The courses may involve some work, but the content shouldn’t be novel for most BYU students and shouldn’t be much of a burden. That would also allow them more bandwidth when studying for their other non-religion classes. Personally, I would have aced those classes, with very little effort, and had a better GPA and more time to study for other classes, thus improving my GPA even further. Instead, I went to a non-BYU school where, for a couple of years, I wasted my time taking Institute classes. My GPA was fine, but it took more effort to accomplish than if I had been able to pad it with mandatory easy classes. (I’ll wait for, and then be amused by, those who will assert that the Religion classes we’re referring to are rigorous, are not easy, and that BYU gets to decide what counts as scholarship)

  37. Unless something changes, students are still required to pay back their student loans, so even though that money goes indirectly to the university, it will ultimately come not from government but from students as they repay the loans, with interest. So I would put a big asterisk next to that amount.

  38. I’m chiming in one more time to underscore how incredibly lousy it is that BYU refused the second CARES Act disbursement – the one that went directly to students. The top-ten private university I work for didn’t accept the first, I assume for the same political reasons as Harvard, but they DID accept the second, I assume because it went to students. What kind of holier-than-they attitude prevents BYU from providing federal aid during a pandemic to their students? I am disgusted.

  39. Ronald G. says:

    //Accreditation does not decide whether a university’s mission is legitimate. Instead they look at if the school’s resources and organization (and a hundred other things) are arranged so that it can be successful at achieving its mission. BYU is quite clear about its religious mission. The idea that a university should not offer courses in an area central to its mission is absurd.//

    This sounds as if universityʻs are free to conjure up any mission they deem appropriate. They are not. Even religious universities must adhere to the standards of the accrediting body. The NWCCU uses the language of “standards” and “eligibility requirements,” which g. wesley linked to above. The way Religious Education currently operates is in tension with several of those. Case in point:

    You say:

    //I don’t know where the idea comes from that professors not determining their own curriculum is some kind of violation of academic norms.//

    Standard 1.C.5 states “The institution recognizes the central role of faculty to establish curricula, assess student learning, and improve instructional programs.”

    The situations you allude to are ones where faculty may be required to use a certain curriculum, but that curriculum was designed by the the faculty. This is not the case for Religious Education. I could go on, but this is all covered in the other post. No one is saying BYU should not offer courses in an area central to its mission; just that those courses must meet the standards of the accreditors if they are to count toward a student’s GPA or the 120 credit hour minimum. The solution proposed is to require those courses but not have them count for credit. That actually sounds quite reasonable.

  40. Left Field says:

    My undergraduate experience at BYU was 1977-1983. My strategy for religion classes was to seek advice on instructors from people I trusted and then take whatever they were teaching. I took Book of Mormon and New Testament from Griggs. I took church history from Porter and Cowan. I don’t remember offhand who else. One semester, I took a chance on an unknown, and I was really sorry. With that one exception, the courses were very rigorous–lots of reading, term papers, challenging exams. For the New Testament class, the text (in addition to the NT, of course) was New Testament History by F.F. Bruce. If memory serves, we were required to compare two different NT translations. I remember occasionally hearing other students gripe that religion classes shouldn’t be graded or have tests, since you don’t get a grade for Sunday School, after all. But I was glad to have some academic rigor from BYU, in addition to what I got in actual Sunday School I think the courses would have met the requirements for transfer of credit, even in cases where the actual topic wouldn’t have matched a course in the target institution.

    I’m sorry to hear that things have changed.

  41. Robert and Michael: In various ways, you both assume that BYU religion classes can’t be academically defensible for accreditation, but I’m very skeptical of that assumption. Just like you’ve had experience with accreditation, so has BYU and the faculty and administrators there. I know BYU faculty who have served on accreditation teams for other schools. Outside of BYU campuses, we usually only hear when someone does something dumb, but most of the personnel I’ve met at various times have been pretty sharp. Department heads know what accreditation entails. So I’m highly skeptical of the idea that BYU’s recent overhaul of the religious education curriculum was done without someone having a close look at the accreditation standards, and I don’t see any obvious reason why a religion course couldn’t be designed to meet them.

    The other reason I’m skeptical that any of this has anything to do with accreditation is that accreditors have gone over all of this before. Every seven years, as you say. I once had the occasion to look at accreditation documents for each of the BYU campuses, and it was fairly enlightening. There was absolutely none of the Striking A Blow For Academic Freedom that people imagine accreditation accomplishing. Instead there was mostly highly complementary language about most things and several recommendations, but none of it had anything to do with religious education.

    I’ll probably leave it at this for now. There are ideas that I can absolutely support, like having religion faculty with better academic qualifications, but talking about accreditation standards instead of educational quality is mostly a distraction when it comes to that.

  42. Some BYU religion classes may already be academically defensible for accreditation, and others could be made so–even the basic courses on scripture. Old and New Testament classes, for instance, could use mainstream academic textbooks and then offer LDS responses to what experts in the field are currently saying. Doctrine and Covenants classes might study the scriptural text alongside strong academic works on early LDS history such as “Rough Stone Rolling.” There are some professors in Religious Education who are capable of helping students engage with the relevant scholarship at a level appropriate for university study. But the four required cornerstone courses, which were introduced after the last round of accreditation, are not academically defensible at all. Anyone who doubts that is invited to read the manuals posted online at the Church’s website and look for how much engagement there is with non-LDS scholarship, or even with faithful LDS scholarship. The answer is zero. The manuals are simply compilations of general authority quotes, and it appears that anyone who is comfortable reiterating the words of church leaders is perfectly capable of teaching those classes, regardless of any professional qualifications or training they may or may not have. Many thanks, C. Keen, for the pushback, which has helped me to think a little more clearly about the academic legitimacy of Religious Education at BYU.

  43. Ronald G. says:

    C. Keen

    Thinking that accreditation could compel Religious Education to change is far less wishful thinking than “convincing the people currently in charge [to change] based on the merits of your proposal.” Both may turn out to simply be wishful thinking, but the former is a better bet in this case when it comes to Religious Education; better by leaps and bounds.

  44. The amount of…let’s call it appendage measuring…in this comment thread was fantastic.

  45. I think it is wise for BYU to not directly accept federal funding for its programs, but to still let the students apply for grants and loans. The university has much more leverage than this article claims, because of its sponsor. Yes, a sudden disallowance of federal loans/grants/aid would certainly impact BYU, but to what extent? I do not think that it would have much of an impact on enrollment on a financial level, considering that tuition for both members and nonmembers of The Church of Jesus Christ is incredibly subsidized by tithe payers.

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