Last week, I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager; I took an official BYU campus tour. Even though I graduated from BYU in 1992, as an alumnus living out of state, I have seldom been back to the campus. Some things have changed a lot, while other things were about the same. I couldn’t help but reminisce as we toured. There’s where I saw Au Revoir Les Enfants. There’s where I got in a fight with my roommate’s friend who owed me money. There’s that racist statue. There’s where my friend slid on the icy stairs, taking me out in the process along with two random strangers.

But the point of this series is to discuss why these unique Mormon practices exist, so back to business. Why does the Church operate a highly subsidized university? Here are some possibilities to consider:

Cheap Tuition. To make education affordable for church members, resulting in more grads and more financial success. Pres Benson famously said, “The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums.” Education is one way to improve a person’s self-perception and their marketable skills in ways that will open opportunities for them that they previously didn’t envision. Those who are more jaded might interpret this a little differently:

  • To increase tithing. Obviously if college grads earn more than non-grads, then they are higher contributors and don’t rely on the welfare system to the same degree. There could be a financial side benefit, even if this is not a main reason for the Church to want a higher educated membership.
  • To improve church reputation. This is a big benefit of a higher educated congregation, especially since Pew keeps saying that conservative religions are usually less educated, implying that only rubes and buffoons would fall for that. Oh yeah, well our rubes and buffoons are college grads, so take that, Pew!

This one has a lot of support as we have many church leaders on record encouraging church members–of both sexes–to get as much education as possible. We also have expanded the satellite BYU campuses significantly to allow for more students, and added a lot of online courses for those unable to attend in person, particularly those in other countries or those returning to finish their education in adulthood. As my son explained it when he was taking an online BYU class, he was the only 20 year old male in a class of 50 year old housewives, but he found Dorothy and Karen totally relatable peers.

Religion Classes. To control educational content to the extent possible, particularly but not exclusively religious indoctrination. Most privately owned universities probably start this way; they have a vision of how they think higher education should be different from how it is elsewhere. My first job was at Church of the Brethren founded Elizabethtown College, and it didn’t seem like a very religious school when I was there. It’s original mission had probably been somewhat diluted over the century since its 1899 foundation. Religion classes are a feature of a BYU education (as our tour guide claimed, or some might say drawback…) that the school requires of all students. When I attended it was a total of 14 credit hours, designed so that most students would take one religion class per semester, and four of these needed to be related to the standard works, like seminary was. The core curriculum has changed since then, and there are 4 required classes: The Eternal Family (barf), Foundations of the Restoration (instead of D&C I guess?), Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel (there goes the New Testament class!), and Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon.

Students who transfer away from BYU always lament that these classes lack sufficient academic rigor to be counted at other schools, so they end up being lost credits (our tour guide pointed out that the most popular class is one on Judaism and Islam, which I suspect was the World Religions class when I attended, one that generally is transferable). That points to the notion that one purpose of running a Church-owned university is to continue the religious indoctrination that us done in seminary for high school students. But beyond its religion classes, all faculty at BYU are required to include “spiritual” content in their classes, regardless the subject matter, and they are evaluated on how well they accomplish this. For more secular topics, teachers would frequently set aside one class per semester to deliberately point out that they were meeting that requirement because the students are policing it, and if their evaluations say they didn’t do it, good luck getting tenure. And you’d better believe that there are some self-appointed spiritual Gestapo in every class, just waiting to trip up a teacher they think is insufficiently religious or espouses liberal views.

There’s a lot of evidence for ideological purity being a reason the Church runs BYU, particularly given the ratcheting up of ecclesiastical endorsements for both students and faculty since I attended. If not, if it were just that we value education, the Church has plenty of money to instead offer members tuition reimbursement or scholarships or other subsidies, regardless their university (which sounds like a pretty great idea if you ask me).

Mrs Degrees. To provide match-making for young Mormons, particularly those who grew up in areas with few Mormons to date or potentially marry. Otherwise, where would all those RMs go to find the hot wives their disgusting mission presidents promised them as a reward for faithful service? The school is very effective at pairing up spouses, and since Mormon culture never shuts up about marriage anymore, and since the Proclamation and so many in the Church assume that only women care for children while men earn the money to support the family, graduation rates at BYU reflect these assumptions. Although more women than men enter the school, more men by far graduate with a four year degree and more men go on to graduate level studies. For these reasons, sexist BYU co-ed jokes were the norm when I attended there, because apparently nothing is funnier than mocking women who are supposedly husband hunting under the guise of self-improvement and educational attainment. Hopefully, those are trends that have changed in the last few decades. I’ll be honest, I had a roommate at BYU who literally only had enough money for one semester, and her sole goal was to be engaged by the time her money ran out. She made it just under the wire, but our apartment was a never-ending rotation of random dudes being plied with Southern cooking and back massages. That was a weird semester.

Bringing a student body together that is 99% Mormon is one way to avoid the mixed faith marriages that are more likely to occur in a more religiously diverse university. Making the bar for entry and the behavior code unappealing to non-Mormons is a great strategy to pair Mormons with other Mormons.

Honor Code Living. To give young Mormons a wholesome alternative to the party atmosphere on secular campuses. Mormon students and their parents are often rightly worried about the university cultures they may encounter at other schools, especially if they have had a sheltered upbringing and/or would like to keep one. They may not be ready for the social scene among peers who are drinking, doing recreational drugs, and hooking up, or they may find this kind of atmosphere counter-productive to their studies or their personal comfort and happiness.

So what do you think?

  • Did you or your kids attend BYU? If so, what were your reasons? If not, why not?
  • Do you think BYU is a good value?