Is student debt contributing to the vocation crisis? — UPDATED

A recent study from CARA says, “Yes”:

With accumulated educational debt increasing by five percent yearly in the United States, the research was designed with two main goals:

1) to learn more about the impact of student loans on the men and women who are coming to religious life today.

2) to learn about the policy and practices of the religious institutes regarding educational debt and to learn from their experiences.

The study has found that our national educational debt problem is definitely impeding young women and men from pursuing life as a religious priest, sister, or brother. When one out of three people applying to religious life has student loans of almost $21,000, this inevitably becomes a financial strain on some religious institutes. Some communities have no alternative but to ask potential candidates to delay their applications, or even worse, turn them away altogether.

This issue highlights one aspect of the complexity of the religious vocation question in this country.

The report offers some detail:

The majority of communities (two in three) show a willingness to work with candidates with educational debt—and some 42 percent of responding institutes assume educational debt for a least some of those who apply to enter their communities.

But, the study indicates, the practice of assuming debt places a heavy and growing financial burden on religious communities. Those applying to enter religious life during the past 10 years carried $3 million in educational debt, and if national trends continue, that overall student debt load will likely rise by 5 percent annually.

Men and women whose educational debt is delaying their entrance into a religious community often develop creative strategies for paying off their loans, such as online candy sales, marathon runs, or bingo fundraisers.

Read the full report at this link.

UPDATE: MSNBC offers a personal glimpse at one woman who delayed her vocation because of debt:

Nicole Ferko’s $60,000 in student loans made her put off her dream of becoming a nun for a decade.

Ferko, who lives in Grand Prairie, Texas, graduated from a private Ohio Catholic university in 2002 and walked away with a huge loan burden.

“I knew I wanted to give my life to God, but I expected after college I’d go right in and work toward becoming a sister,” she said. But she discovered that individuals looking to become priests or nuns need to be debt free.

It took her until late last year to pay off her loans because she was unable to find many good-paying jobs and ended up racking up $20,000 in credit card debt. With the loans and credit cards paid off, Ferko, 32, is now on track to become a sister with The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, but she won’t reach her ultimate goal of donning a nun’s habit until she’s 39 because the process takes that long.

“I thought I’d be a sister by almost 30 — not almost 40,” she said. “If I had to do it all over again, I would have been smarter to have saved a lot more money.”

Read the rest.


  1. MidwestGirl says:

    However, I also think it’s important to remember the burdens these debts place on young families, as well. Our education system is broken in the United States, and the problem is compounded by the fact we tell our students that everyone “has” to go to college.

    My husband is a college professor, and he says that most students study “astrophysics” – they are just taking up time and space before they get their degree. Many students come to college for a semester or two (because that’s what you do after high school) before they end up flunking out or leaving and then have large loans to pay back and no degree.

  2. Elizabeth Scalia says:

    Two excellent organizations are out there, trying to help those who feel called to a vocation but have outstanding student loan debt. We contribute to them a few times a year:

    The thing is, though, they’re helpful for 10 or 20 thousand in debt. When folks are nearly 100K in debt, it’s too heavy a burden for these organizations, too, unless their donor bases grow.

  3. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    I can’t believe how much higher education is robbing the tax-payers, students, and parents. One set of statistics I saw indicates the cost of higher education is skyrocketing faster than the cost of medical care. But noone asks why. In the meanwhile I turn on the TV and watch college prof after college prof damning business, the capitalist system, and conservative politicians. In some cases could it be projected guilt for gaming the education system (as they demand more and more money channeled through the students through loans, etc.)
    A while back I happened to get a peak at the teaching schedules for a major university in the Boston area. Can you call having hardly any courses or classes to teach working for a living??( But some claim it is the behind the scenes bureaucracy that is exploding in size like a malignant Jabba the Hut that is doing the plundering.)
    Indeed, some professors “earn” 3 to 4 hundred thousand dollars a year. Recently there was the story in our local newspapers giving the income of a professorial couple who, for the courses not taught and time spent consulting, got over a million dollars. Apparently the day of the cheaply dressed sport jacket frayed at the elbow professor is long gone—to be replaced by students and parents financially stripped naked.
    And don’t look at the groves of academe as some sort of super-moral arena eager to set things right. Just recently it came out that some universities, to prove how diverse they are, were claiming that a prof, who it turns out is maybe 1/32 part American Indian, was being counted as an American Indian minority to prove their diversity and their willingness to promote minorities. The local media can’t really figure out who was behind the scam, the prof gaining the promotions or the university seeking to look diverse. The prof is now jokingly referred to as the Norwegian blue-eyed blond Cherokee.

  4. Those Harvard salaries are “far above median”. Really, go look at those pictures at the link — Harvard faculty salaries are astonishingly high above the median. Here is what “above median” looks like. Here’s what an anonymous liberal arts college looks like “below median” Remember that the “full professor” number is people with doctorates, and decades of experience.

    As for the Harvard work load, teaching is a small part of a Harvard professor’s responsibilities. When the lion’s share of the money paying the professor’s salary comes from research grants, simple justice requires that the professor spend the lion’s share of his time doing research.

    And teaching during class is a small part of teaching, too. The rule of thumb for students is that they should spend 3 hours outside of class doing problems, reading, writing, etc. for each hour in the classroom, and professors have similar ratios with grading, setting up and tearing down labs, helping students one-on-one, etc. To use an analogy that you should understand — if you give a 10-minute homily at two different masses on a weekend, does that mean that you only worked 20 minutes that week?

  5. Student loan debt is one of my “hot buttons.” I’ve preached the perils for years, but mostly to deaf ears. It’s no secret the reason college tutitions have skyrocketed is a result of government subsidized loans; easy money any NO, as in NADA, accountability from the schools.

    Consequently, enrolling students has become more competative than college footaball, with much of the money going to make the campus of choice look like a 5 star hotel.

    If that isn’t bad enough, Obama takes the privitization away, which eliminates any competition from the free market to buy and consolidate the loans at a low interest to at least not have the studented swallowed up by the princple AND the interest.

    Factor that in with the Presdent’s elitist attitude that all who don’t go to college are worthless. To expand what Midwest Girl wrote about the drop outs, less than 50% graduate, and indeed, become drop outs with big loans AND no degree.

    It’s all one more power grab by the government, as what/who can “own” us better than to whom we are indebted.

    Rest assured, there will be some “political advantagous” move before the election. I have my a few ideas on what those might be!

    Student loans are just one more thing the government had no business getting involved.

  6. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    If the lion’s share of a prof’s salary comes from grants etc. where in the world is parent and student money going??? The academic bureaucracy???
    Also, of the many courses I have had in the Boston area, by far and away the best teachers were NOT those with the doctor’s degrees.
    I don’t have all the answers, but few are asking questions about where tuition money goes and why tuition across the board is skyrocketing. But some wealthy academics are only too willing to publicly attack other groups or individuals for making too much money– even those people who actually do more for the overall well-being of society.
    And is there no “quality control” in universities, etc. For example, I had a course on English literature. But the prof gave lecture after lecture after lecture of left-wing ragtime. Another course I had the prof just read from the textbook and lamented all the while that the powers that be in the university assigned him to the course we were taking. He openly said his degrees were not in the field he was teaching. Another course we were taking the prof got a chance to go to Germany on some sort of academic jaunt. So, only a short while into the course he told us we would all get good marks and the rest of the classes would not be held. A lot of us kept saying to each other: “And we’re paying big money for this.”
    Let’s have a full-scale Congressional investigation of tuition costs. Now that the government is involved in all the student loans, Congress has every right to do so on our behalf.

  7. Mary Russell says:

    This really hits home. I very badly wanted to enter the Sisters of Life upon my graduation from residency in 2003, but I was $70k in debt from medical school and there was no way I could get it paid off before at least 7-8 years out, a wait that I just couldn’t do emotionally. So I got married to another family doctor- a very good, happy marriage. (Our third baby is on the way.). There were lots of others on discernment retreats who were in the same boat.

  8. I read about a woman that became a nun from Yale (Sisters of Life) and Harvard (Dominican’s) but they probably had less debt. I know someone else with over 80.000 debt that is waiting to enter an order but it’s a large load to pay off even with help.
    A lot of orders want diplomas, they don’t want uneducated women, but even state schools are so expensive.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I pray that things get better.

  9. Thanks, Deacon John. If I’m not mistaken, the Harvard professor you refer to as the “Norwegian, blond-haired, blue-eyed Cherokee” is none other than Hollywood dah-ling and US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. I’ve been following the story at the Boston Herald … and am getting a “laugh a day” from it. Could the voters of MA be so foolish as to elect this fraud?

  10. kenneth says:

    Higher education these days is a “star or slave” economy, with the vast, vast majority at the slave end of things. Of course, places like Harvard have six-figure stars. These are often Nobel-level folks that attract lots of funding and more importantly, prestige to the institution. Harvard also has an endowment the size of some country’s GDP, and most of their student base comes from families for who tuition cost is truly no object. Even those who do rack up debt there are going to do just fine in the long run.
    At most smaller schools, and essentially all state schools and community colleges, the picture is far different. More and more, these places have NO tenured faculty outside of the stars and department heads. They employ a miserable workforce of often very bright and hardworking phd’s who serve as a permanent migrant worker force. I can’t tell you how many of these guys I’ve seen working at two or even three of these institutions part time to scrape up $30,000 and no medical benefits, or rotten benefits. My own wife was in that position for six years at a community college, building an excellent music program and working basically half time for about $10,000 a year. The guys who clean the johns and mow the fields have a better compensation package, and better job security.
    Then of course, you have the grad students, who do research AND teach full time, for maybe $20,000 a year. They will spend four, five or six years to earn their degree, and most of them have no realistic shot a a good tenured faculty job, or it will take them a decade plus to achieve it.
    Whatever the cause of runaway student debt, it’s not because the average professor is getting fat on the system. Some of it has to do with the near-abandonment of state funding for these institutions. Some of it is insane health care costs. Some of it is marketing lies. Schools and counselors keep feeding the myth that students shouldn’t even consider the costs of a “good school.” You’ve got kids racking up $200,000 debts for an undergrad degree in some humanities major, which has absolutely zero value in the marketplace these days. With luck and connections, it will enable you to work at Starbucks. It used to be that getting a degree – any degree, guaranteed at least some kind of middle management job and lifetime job security. Those days are long, long gone, but the myth lives on, and kids and families keep falling for the scam.

  11. justamouse says:


    I looked into getting my DRE certification. 24 credits, 28,000. Now, they did say they would give me a 50% cost reduction, but 14k is still a lot to us, and I can’t put my family into debt like that.

    I don’t know what the answer is, either, but I am also praying they get better. To put off a vocational calling because of student loans is a very sad thing.

  12. midwestlady says:

    True. Our educational system no longer works correctly, even in the lower grades. But it’s even worse in high school and college. The whole thing needs to be overhauled.

  13. midwestlady says:

    It’s become a business and not much more.

  14. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    Mark–you hit the nail on the head. Now this morning the Boston media is quoting Prof. Warren as whining that she is being picked on because she is a woman. She now claims she was merely trying to network with other 1/32 part Indian scholars or lawyers. She claims she wasn’t trying to get a diversity “leg up” on others seeking jobs or promotions.
    As for who Ma. votes for–put a (D) after a featherless parrot’s name and they would have a good chance of winning an election here. After all, we sent a child molester to the House and someone who left a girl to drown at Chappaquidik Bridge to the Senate along with a number of other embarassments over recent decades.

  15. I don’t like to make everything political, but this IS political. It’s a no brainer that if GOVERNMENT WOULD GET OUT OF THE STUDENT LOAN BUSINESS, college tutition would resume to normal/affordable fees, whatever normal might be in this over inflated power grab.

    The ONLY reason kids get this far into debt is because the money is easy, and there is no accountability as to how the school spends it. There is also no “debt escape”, not even bankruptcy, (yet). One can only image that scenario should it “come to pass before Nov 2012.”

    I’m no political analyst, but IMO, Romeny could win the youth vote on this issue. Uncle Sam is not a friend of students. This is a perfect, “a fruition/example we can actually see” an example of what governmant easy money and handouts do to us, as a people, a country, and an economy. Even Scripture teaches that debt enslaves. We now have over half of the country depending on government in one way or another.

    I pray to God that at least the youth will wake up and smell the coffee, break free of the chains that bind them, before they lose it all, and vote the left out of governmet. If ObamaCare survives, our least problem in America will be student debt.

  16. Midwest Girl says:

    At the same time, it’s difficult, because it depends upon what school you teach at.

    My husband is a professor at a small state university in the Midwest. He specifically chose this job over others because he wanted to teach, not spend half his time doing research.

    After obtaining his PhD, he still makes what I could have directly out of school with a BA in business and marketing. He hasn’t had a salary raise in four years (with the exception of winning an award). We don’t have internet or texting on our cell phones, go on vacations, or go to national sporting events.

    Each semester, he has more students in his classes and more outside the classroom responsibilities. He teaches 12 credit hours a semester (at most universities they teach 6).

    His biggest frustration? The apathy of the students. The students do have the opportunity to give evaluations on faculty, which help determine whether the professor is promoted, tenured, or rehired (for instructor positions). However, why should a student wearing a “Beer Me” t-shirt with the sleeves cut off have any influence in whether or not he keeps his job? Most students have feedback like “Wear less purple shirts” or “You should let us leave class early.”

    I don’t mention this to be “poor, pitiful us” because God has blessed us beyond measure, and both of us are doing exactly what God has called us to do. My point is all professors aren’t the overpaid and under qualified teachers you portray.

  17. My wife and I paid off the last of our school debt off last month. It took 13 years. We each went $20,000 into debt for our education. This was at a state school. I had a job that paid well for most of my undergraduate career. She has a B.S. in Graphic Design and I have a B.A. in History. She now stays home with our 4 children. My wife could not make the payments on her loans after she graduated, she was unable to get a well paying job. The only reason the debt hadn’t killed us is I learned a skill in school and was able to get a well-paying job because of it. We definitely fell into the young and stupid category when it came to loans.

    That said, I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience. I got an education I truly enjoyed and that opened the way to my becoming Catholic. I learned the skills that allowed to get a family supporting job. I met my wife.

  18. Aaron:
    Sounds like it was worth every penny.

  19. Aaron T says:

    And more

  20. I have a son who is going to Notre Dame next year, and the length scale is simply astonishing to me. If you want a real secret — go to a school with a big endowment.

    We have spent many hours on the question “where the heck is all of the money going?” We have a couple of theories, and it may just be that they are all true, and it adds up.

    1) Students today would never put up with what we put up with — let’s face it, we lived in hovels and ate swill. The dining hall had 1, 2, maybe 3 choices, and if you didn’t like it you were out of luck. It was open for an hour at breakfast, an hour at lunch and an hour-and-a-half at dinner. Rooms were tiny, grimy, ugly, we were crammed into them, and things like air-conditioning — or even basic fire safety — were only dreams. Classrooms and offices were furnished in WWII army surplus and “decorating” consisted of slopping white paint on the walls — once or twice a century, whether it needed it or not!

    2) There has been a huge advancement in psychotropic drugs, which means that there is a whole cadre of students in college — who are succeeding in college — when without the anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, etc. drugs they would have dropped out of high school and would be living in their parents’ basements. Those students need lots of help — full-time counselors, student life coordinators, etc.

    3) From about 1985 to 2006 we had an astonishing run of good economic times, and students are wealthier and expect to live well. Also, now that most families have both parents working, kids don’t just go outside and play anymore. So they have spent their lives up until college in structured activities — league or school sports rather than playing in the street and climbing trees. So colleges have to provide this huge array of extra-curriculars (tellingly called “co-curricular”) because these kids are helpless at amusing themselves constructively and staying out of trouble without staff and equipment.

    4) A huge explosion of government rules and regulations, which mean that schools have to hire people to fill out the forms telling the government that they provided services to all of those #2 kids and didn’t discriminate against them, and that they provided all those amusements to the #3 kids and did it without discriminating on the basis of race, gender, ethnic origin, etc. At 100+ year old colleges, when they take you on the tour they will point out the old buildings. Many of which were designed by college faculty or administrators in their spare time, built by students who manufactured the bricks on site, supervised by faculty and staff. Just try to imagine that happening today!

  21. pagansister says:

    My son, graduated high school, never really enjoying school, but he did fine—was offered, hadn’t applied, a 2 year partial scholarship to a small college—which he turned down. Spent 7 years, working various jobs, finally decided to go to a Tech school—in computers—loves it, and is making a good salary. College wasn’t for him. His wife has a 2 year degree in computers also, from a community college. Not everyone is cut out for college. He does have, however, a loan to pay off, which he has refinanced a couple of times, as he wouldn’t allow us to help him when he was getting his education. My grandson is 2. I can’t imagine what college will cost, if he chooses to go, in another 16 years!

  22. Oregon Catholic says:

    While the student loan business has lots of problems, some of the whining about the debt load puts me in mind of lot’s of sub-prime mortgage borrowers. Rule #1 about credit is you don’t borrow more than you know you can pay off – period. If students don’t yet have the financial maturity to realize this their parents certainly should. It also pays to consider cost/benefit and whether running up a $100K debt to get a BA in some humanities field has any hope of ever translating to a career with a good income.

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