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How a tuition-erasing endowment is changing Christian higher ed in Mississippi

Sidney Stegall of Columbus, Miss., is an incoming freshman at Mississippi College. Photo by Chuck Cook/Genesis

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Sidney Stegall ran 12 miles the morning Mississippi College made its big announcement. That’s not really a stretch for a state Gatorade Player of the Year. Still, Stegall felt it as he walked up the stairs to Anderson Hall for the school’s fall 2022 preview day, a recruiting event for high school juniors and seniors. Inside, he joined a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Many were, like him, wearing MC T-shirts and hopeful smiles, but like Stegall, many had also crunched the numbers. Tuition, room, and board for a year at the private Christian college in Clinton, Miss., costs at least $30,000. That may be on par nationally, but it’s more than Mississippi’s per capita annual income. And it’s a lot more than many of the preview attendees knew they could afford.

But just a few sentences into the assembly’s opening remarks, MC President Blake Thompson made a jaw-dropping announcement. A new fund—the Leland Speed Scholarship—would cover tuition for hundreds of incoming students. Stunned, Stegall ran his fingers through his fringe of blond bangs and wondered if he’d misheard. The prospective students around him looked confused, too. Thompson eventually had to repeat the specifics: four years of free ­tuition for in-state applicants who meet MC’s basic admission requirements and live on campus.

Stegall says that’s when news of the scholarship finally sank in. The crowd of 700 parents and prospects erupted in applause and jumped to their feet for a standing ovation. It was also when Stegall, a Columbus, Miss., native, remembered his friends back home—the ones who hadn’t come to preview day because they thought the door to Christian higher education was shut to them. In the middle of all the celebration, Stegall shot them a text he could hardly believe he was typing: “Guess what? You’re not going to have to pay.”

Michael Wright, dean of enrollment services at MC, says that announcement changed the school’s trajectory: “Since then, it’s just been an onslaught of interest, questions, and applications. It’s created a lot of buzz, and in our business, that’s a good thing.”

Especially now, at a time when Wright says Christian higher ed is teetering on the brink of outpricing itself. Leaning back in a chair in the school’s student union building, Wright looks lean and youthful, but he’s been in the business of helping students navigate the admissions process at MC for 17 years. He’s straightforward when he gives the lay of the land. “There comes a point when the public simply can’t afford what colleges are selling. It’s like the steakhouse that’s really nice and everybody thinks is great. But the steaks are $230, so you limit who can actually eat at the steakhouse. There’s a price point that becomes too high, and the consumer is going to say, ‘I’m not buying that product.’”

Wright is a polished talker who admits saying “free” and “tuition” together in the same breath has taken some getting used to. But for 650 incoming MC freshmen and transfers, the paired words are now common vernacular. They’re also practiced at explaining that any other funds they have coming their way—federal, state, or institutional grants and scholarships—will be applied to their room and board fees.

Dean Michael Wright talks to prospective students.

Dean Michael Wright talks to prospective students. Photo by Chuck Cook/Genesis

It’s all thanks to the new scholarship, named in honor of its donor, Leland Speed, the longest-serving board member in MC’s history. Wright says Speed, who died at age 88 in 2021, had the ability to see around corners. “He was chewing on how to help solve the rising costs of Christian higher education, and he knew that a very large gift would be able to help. In my mind, he dropped a stone in the water that’s going to potentially cause ripples throughout eternity.”

The challenge of funding religious education is as old as the American university system. In 1636, the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to establish “a colledge.” But progress was slow until clergyman John Harvard willed half his estate and his library of more than 400 books to what would later become Harvard University. Words chiseled into one of the school’s entrances emphasize the colonists’ priority after they established houses and government: “One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

Whatever those Puritans might think of today’s Harvard, they would have to admit the school has faithful supporters. Harvard’s endowment, its largest financial asset, is valued at more than $53 billion. And it funds more than a third of the university’s operating expenses.

That’s why endowments—whether from private corporations or individual donors—are game changers for higher education. But they usually come with strings attached. Sometimes donors stipulate use by certain departments and programs within the school, or they designate funds for beautification projects or new buildings. The donor may also cap the financial flow, only allowing trustees to spend a designated amount of money each year.

The size of the gift Leland Speed bequeathed to MC is hush-hush, but it’s likely the institution wants to keep it in perpetuity. That means the school would only spend earnings—about 3 percent to 7 percent annually, on average—and leave the nest egg untouched. If MC is funding tuition at more than $20,000 a year for 650 Speed Scholars, that’s $13 million in earnings alone. That’s some nest egg.

According to Jeff Pierpont of online student resource College Raptor, free tuition is rare. “Most colleges have a few endowed scholarships, but nothing of this magnitude, where every incoming student could qualify for it. I can’t think of a single other school that does something like this.”

Neither can Wright. Glancing at his computer screen, the dean of admissions reports MC’s applications are up 120 percent. Paid housing deposits are up 200 percent. Junior Day, a preview opportunity for high school juniors and their parents, brought 360 students to campus for a visit. The previous year, only 87 came.

Administrators at other Christian schools who’ve seen those numbers are calling Wright with questions. They want to know what changed at MC and how they can follow suit.

“I tell them it’s easy,” Wright says with a smile. “You’ve got to find your Mr. Speed.”

JUST WEEKS BEFORE the Speed Scholarship made headlines last fall, failing infrastructure in the Mississippi capital was in the national spotlight. One of the Jackson neighborhoods affected by those water woes was affluent Eastover, a lush residential development patterned after the nationally renowned River Oaks community in Houston. Leland Speed’s parents constructed Eastover’s first home in the 1950s, and he was still living in the area 70 years later as his MC bequest plans took shape.

On a golden October day in 2020, Speed’s son, Warren, drove down one of Eastover’s tree-lined streets to pick up his father for an important interview at MC. Warren, 54, gets emotional talking about what he knew would be Speed’s last visit on campus. “I felt protective of Dad,” he recalls. “By then the ALS was affecting his speech.”

But not his determination. Speed’s ALS diagnosis early that year galvanized his desire to fund Christian higher ed. Warren says it also gave his father the boldness to suggest his friends do likewise. “He said that when everybody knows you’re dying, you’ve got their ears. He wanted to leverage the opportunity.”

I tell them it’s easy. You’ve got to find your Mr. Speed.

Although Speed amassed a substantial fortune, he did not intend to leave it all to his three sons. Warren stresses that his father understood the money could ultimately harm them. “It was disconcerting to him when people of significant means left everything to their children. He was generous with us, but he didn’t want to cripple us. He wanted us to value what it means to work for a living.” Maybe that’s why Speed spent his last weeks and months urging his friends to make meaningful gifts to Christian universities. “I guess in the coming years, as those folks pass on, we’ll see if his conversations bore fruit,” Warren says with a shrug.

During Speed’s final visit to MC, Warren walked him into the school’s library—named in memory of Leland’s father—to record a video that explains why he included higher ed in his estate planning. As the staff outfitted Speed with a lapel mic, he straightened his checked shirt and tugged at the fleece vest outlining his thinning frame. Leaning into the camera, Speed described a conversation he had with himself months earlier: “You know, you’ve been pretty blessed, Leland. What are you going to do about this? If there’s going to be a Christian future in Mississippi, Mississippi College is going to be a big part of it.”

Leland Speed, the longest-serving board member in MC history.

Leland Speed, the longest-serving board member in MC history. Handout

The final cut of Speed’s segment lasts under a minute, and Warren sums it up well: “Dad wanted everyone to understand his goal was to remove the financial barrier to Christian education.”

Described as a voracious consumer of periodicals, the elder Speed had come across an article that many now believe was the impetus for his gift to MC. It was titled “America’s Post-Christian Future.”

“It really rattled him,” Warren remembers. “He was convinced we have strong headwinds against our Christian founding, and he understood why America is exceptional. He knew the reasons people like Elon Musk move to the United States to start companies.”

But even as Speed’s thoughts turned toward helping further Christian higher ed, many such institutions were closing their doors. Nondenominational Grace University in Omaha, Neb., ceased operations in 2018. So did Alabama’s historically black Concordia College. Next came a host of others: Nebraska Christian College, Marymount California University, and the Church of Christ–affiliated Ohio Valley University. This spring, Iowa Wesleyan University announced its end. Since then, at least five other Christian institutions have unveiled closure plans, including 140-year-old Alliance University, better known as Nyack College.

Some school officials cite low enrollment and looming real estate debt as factors in their closures. Others point to a decline in population. But overall, enrollment numbers aren’t so very different from 10 years ago. According to groups that track such numbers, some 20 million students attended classes in the fall of 2020, a comparable number to the 19.9 million enrollees tallied in 2013.

Whatever the reason, New York Times columnist David Brooks might say the closures represent a growing problem. During a panel discussion with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, he described the United States as a country filled with spiritual hunger, with no vocabulary to articulate it. Then he gave a solution: “Christian colleges have the vocabulary.”

Stegall eagerly awaits the academic year.

Stegall eagerly awaits the academic year. Photo by Chuck Cook/Genesis

IT’S IMPORTANT TO NOTE that the Speed Scholarship isn’t for everyone. It’s not for out-of-staters, and it’s not for commuters. It’s not for last year’s freshmen, sophomores, or juniors, either. One recipient told me she suspects that last exclusion led to the resentment she felt from current students during an on-campus tour last spring. It’s understandable. Some of them will be graduating with as much as $120,000 in student loan debt.

Dean Wright has answered angry phone calls from current students and their parents, but he says there was never a discussion of “grandfathering” them into the scholarship. “The goal was increased admissions,” he says matter-of-factly.

Wright also acknowledges some current students worry that what they love about MC could change with an influx of applicants seeking an affordable college rather than a Christian one. And what about academics? “That’s a valid concern,” Wright admits. “I think it should be allayed by the fact that our admission standards haven’t changed. Our general average ACT score is 24.6. This incoming class will have a 24.2.”

As Wright talks, construction sounds seep through the walls and windows of the student union. Two women’s dorms that closed due to low enrollment—Hederman and Gunter—are getting brand new bathrooms and HVAC units. The renovations are part of MC’s race to provide housing for a bumper crop of new residents. “We’re in the ­process now of outlining what fall 2024’s recipient pool may look like, because we’re going to have a capacity issue,” Wright admits. “We can’t build 200 more beds. If we broke ground today, we wouldn’t have them in time. We’re full now.”

He calls it a Speed-generated problem—a good problem—and goes on to relate a story about meeting with a young woman just after the scholarship was announced. “I got to tell her about the Speed Scholarship, and she started to tear up and she said, ‘Are you serious?’” Wright watched as the young woman put her mother on speakerphone and told her the good news. Mom started crying, too. She had only reluctantly agreed to let her daughter visit MC, thinking the cost would make attending there impossible.

Wright says that moment showed him people still value Christian higher education. “There’s a market for what we’re offering.”

After Sidney Stegall heard the surprise announcement about the scholarship at last year’s preview day, he applied for and was accepted as one of this year’s Speed Scholars. That made his last year of high school sweeter but no less busy. When the standout senior wasn’t running, he was at Columbus Baptist Church, where he serves as a pastoral intern. Stacking the Speed Scholarship with his sports offer means Stegall will enjoy a full ride at MC this fall. And that, he says, frees him to think about a future, higher level of Christian ed: “I’ll be able to start saving up to go to seminary.”

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior writer for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family.



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