Seminary Life Today 3

Greg Henson: If the graph doesn’t pop up quickly, hit refresh.

What stands out here? What will seminary need to do and be in light of these numbers?

As a group, incoming students are saddled with over $85,000,000 in educational debt BEFORE they enroll.
Since 2001, the percentage of incoming students that enter seminary with more than $25,000 in educational debt has increased by 143%.

The majority of incoming students will find seminary to be nothing like (or at least very different from) their undergraduate experience.

We have reached the third and final infographic! Like the first and second installments, this week’s infographic is based on the 2011-2012 ATS ESQ. During the 2011-2012 academic year (the mostly recently fully completed academic year), 6,900 students at 161 ATS schools completed a survey for incoming students. Today we are looking at what they bring with them to seminary – debt, experiences, degrees – the results are interesting. Student debt is a huge issue and will require creative approaches to making theological education accessible, affordable, and relevant. Also important to note is the fact that incoming students, for the most part, haven’t experienced anything like seminary. This should be taken into account when developing programs, teaching courses, serving students, and much more.

What do you think? What stands out to you?

NOTE: The leadership reference is related to a subset of students, not ALL incoming MDiv students. The important thing to note is that students are coming in with leadership experience and we could more fully integrate that experience than we already are – that could have profound impact on the entire system of theological education.

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  • Scot (or anyone) do student loans cover only tuition (as they do in Australia) or do they cover housing and other costs associated with study. I think my student debt after paying for my undergrad degree but borrowing the postgrad fees is around $15K. Here in Australia we have a Govt funded loan scheme that is interested free (but incurs inflation increases). It is rare that parents put away for kids University study. My wife’s family did it for her and we are now doing it for our kids for fear that the current system will become unsustainable in the long term.

  • scotmcknight

    Mark, students apply for loans and they can be used for tuition and living expenses.

  • Mark, students can use loans for anything related to the “cost of attendance.” That means they can use it for books, housing, food, transportation, tuition, etc. once upon a time, loans for graduate school were interest free, but that is no longer the case (it is still the case for undergrad education).

    As a group, incoming seminarians at ATS schools have less undergraduate debt than the average undergraduate student, but in some cases they will increase their level of educational debt by over 200% while in seminary. Grad students can borrow a maximum of $22,500 each year they are in seminary, provided their estimated cost of attendance is high enough. However, in places like Chicago, the cost of attendance is quite high due to the cost of living which means even a student receiving a full tuition scholarship could still borrow $22,500 in federal loans. Schools cannot limit what a student chooses to borrow.

  • David

    I graduated from college in 2002 with about 10k in student debt. It is unbelievable to me the way student debt has exploded in 10 years, and I wonder how those going into ministry are able to service debt at those levels.

  • As a student about to enter divinity school I can attest to these figures. As one of the top students in the college at my university for undergrad, and graduating a semester early, I graduated with a fair amount of debt. In stafford loans alone I have about $24,000 (so that does not include loans I had cosigned such as Parent PLUS). I think one of the biggest impacts this has had one me was feeling very discouraged about entering a graduate institution with the large possibility of acquiring more debt.

  • Paul

    With regards to the above survey, it would seem that more cohort type models in seminary may be worth considering….allowing students with similar levels of biblical/theological training and leadership experience to work together towards a common degree. These could be adapted towards on campus and distance learning as well. I would be curious if cohorts are more or less expensive to set up for the seminary, especially with all the stats about cost and debt.

  • “What do you think? What stands out to you?”

    That higher education is too expensive and this bubble will burst. The only positive to the college bubble bursting, and it effecting ministry training institutions, is that the church will have to start equipping the people to serve (Ephesians 4). There is no reason that the church should have to conform to the worldly pattern of extreme education. We have church’s lacking leaders because they are all getting degrees and either are financially strapped, or strapped for time. So the leaders have to wrestle with school, church, and lets not forget their family.

    Higher education is becoming an idol in the church that we are throwing money, time, and our relationships with our children. And I firmly believe that the bubble bursting will be used to sanctify the church.

  • Great question, Paul. Cohorts can be less expensive to set up, but it depends on how the school approaches the concept. Some cohorts are not actually less expensive to “set up” than a traditional system – it all depends on the school. I think you are on the right track when you talk about putting people together who have a similar backgrounds and similar goals. I also think seminaries do not do enough with the “advanced standing” process approved by ATS.

  • I can attest to these numbers personally as well, and see it now in my own students.

    The problem, as stated here, is not really the problem IMO. It is society wide. People aren’t in to frugal living and acting your wage anymore. And I can say this because it is exactly how I was up until only a few years ago. Education cost is something students add to their life without altering other aspects of their lives. They still want to keep up with fashion, they still eat out a lot, avoid a p/t job if they can, go to the movies, have the best cable package, lease a car, and want to upgrade their cell phone and gaming console every chance they get. This is a self-description btw – It wasn’t until my 2nd grad degree that I started to wise up. We live in a culture of entitlement, and are constantly bombarded with the latest gadget that we simply MUST have. This affects everyone.

    There are things that can be done I think – church positions need to recognize financial strains of students and pay them more for the work they are doing. But I think a lot of it just comes down to education: parents need to teach their teens how to budget, colleges need to do the same, and seminaries need to as well.

    I think Mark makes a good point about student loans, it would be good if student loans could in some ways “protect students from themselves.” If a student really needs a student loan, it should just be for the tuition (and books), not for living as well. This would give students incentive to work and find ways to spend less. Again, even I had this problem. I got approved for a huge student loan a number of years and that paid not only my tuition but my whole cost of living for the school year. If I could go back in time, I’d punch younger self in the face and tell him to go get a bloody job at McDonalds.

  • Stephen

    I’m grateful to attend a seminary that realizes almost all of their students are preparing for a life as pastors or missionaries, and debt now will not get any easier to remove without compromising ministry availability (forced bi-vocation, delayed entry into the mission field, required 2nd income from wife who wants to raise kids, etc.). Our school does not even file or accept federal loan requests and tuition cannot be paid with a credit card (though they can’t stop students from applying for loans at a private bank, etc.) – debt should be heavily discouraged at all points for those seeking to work in ministry.

  • Nathan and Stephen make great points — future leaders and current seminary students have to wrestle with demands of school, church, and family (I know this part well) — while piling up debt to enter a field that generally pays very low.

    So with that kind of debt (and the expectations that are placed on them) it comes as no surprise that 80% of pastors think that the job negatively affects their family (see graphic).

    Not sure how to fix it, but I imagine if higher education costs were lower, people were giving more, and serving more it (the whole body is equipped to serve vs. the 80-20 and the pastor does it all) it would cut down on lots of pastoral stress.

  • This is a very complicated issue and the ramifications for the church are profound. However, I don’t think it’s just a seminary/church phenomenon. The cost of education in general is astronomical and unlike some countries where education is covered by the government for those who qualify for higher education, the burden is on the consumer here in the US. Those that fair the worst are individuals in the liberal arts. When studying art, theatre, philosophy, psychology, theology, etc., one is going to take a hit financially. And then we wonder why we have a society lacking in creativity, morality, impulse control, conflict management and critical thinking….

    I made it through undergrad with no debt thanks to scholarships, etc. However, my masters in psychology in a 3 year, highly specialized program at a private school semi-tanked me. I naively thought that upon graduation, I would be making the big bucks. However, I do not begrudge my education at all. It is an investment that continues to pay dividends and it is something no one can ever take from me. So yes, now I am at seminary pursuing a Mdiv while still paying off my previous education. I do it one quarter at a time, with prayer and deep reflection… and I will never again take out students loans. Yet if I didn’t have my masters in psychology (which was made possible through borrowing), I wouldn’t have the options I have today. So most people are in a catch 22 – even more so if you are single and don’t have a second income to fall back on.

    Regardless, I have come to learn that God wires us all a certain way. The more I am true to my design and what he asks of me, paradoxically he has blessed me with provision. I have been a single woman all my life. I don’t own a home and I have much less than many of my friends. However, I have always been able to pay my bills and consider myself rich in more ways than one. We as a nation and a church need to be fiscally responsible but we also need to expand our vision of worth and wealth. You can’t take money to your grave and by most global standards, we’re all doing pretty well.

  • Paul


    I was trying to read up on the advanced standing. It seems this would be a way for a seminary to give a person credit for previous school experience even if it does not directly relate to the seminary program…am I correct?

    I’m not sure on details, but finding ways to incorporate previous school experience into programs would be helpful. The 25% of seminary students with no theological school experience may not need the same classes training as the 75% that have no theological schooling.

    Another thought: According to the ATS things I was reading, advanced standing does not take into account previous life experiences (at least ministerial) as worthy of credit. With all the various leadership experiences of seminary students, it would seem that some of this experience might be worth credit in some way. Do the 54% of seminary students who are already working in church leadership need the same seminary experience (of equal length) as those who have not?

    And of course finding legitimate ways to reduce the numbers of credit hours a student needs to receive the training they want/degree would help with cost/debt incurred as a result of the seminary program.

  • Paul,

    Yes, advanced standing allows seminaries to admit students to a degree program while granting credit for specific courses. The school is required to have an “appropriate assessment” process for approving the credit. A school my grant credit for up to 1/4 of a degree. The details are in the educational and degree program standards published by the Commission on Accrediting of ATS.

    The standards do not allow schools to give credit for life experience. However, I think schools can more effectively integrate previous and current ministry experience. You are correct in that it would significantly decrease costs.

  • Diane

    Having just graduated from a seminary as a mid-career student, I would say the debt problem is oppressive. I felt it caused a spiritual malaise on campus, because, between the debt and the uncertain job market, people were tense and worried and filled with self-blame. I saw some midlife students almost dissolve when they had trouble finding jobs at graduation–they had mountains of debt and only X number of years to retirement–they didn’t have the sense they would get a second chance. My seminary was generous with scholarships, but there were no grants for living expenses for students. Frankly, I think the loan spigot must be turned back to a trickle–a culture of easy money makes it too easy to accept debt as normal. Also, I think seminary staff who say “I worked myself through with no debt” need to be sensitized to the new realities. Further, since the average age of a seminary student is something like 47, I believe we need to think in terms of that paradigm. Some midlife people take out big loans to maintain dignity–they don’t want their adult children, eg, to see them living in a roach infested room. They want their college aged students to have a space to stay with them during vacations. I can’t judge this, though I’m sure people would excoriate this behavior as unfrugal–I understand and accept it as the new reality. My seminary experience was very good, overall, even with the tensions and I wish everybody could have it, but I do wonder if seminaries can survive without a better connection between costs and people’s real financial needs.

  • William Snover

    For years, and especially recently I have been looking for a church to start a low cost education. I think Calvary Baptist Church of Midland Michigan might go forward on this. The idea is to keep costs to a minimum. And somehow this means Colleges should not own buildings and facilities. Most church facilities sit idle perhaps 140 to 160 of the 168 hours in a week. Even Calvary Baptist Church of Midland Michigan which makes incredible use of its facilities are probably vacant 90 hours a week. That is more than enough hours for a
    Bible College or Seminary to meet. Why do average Americans have to work holidays, week ends, midnight shifts, and so on… and colleges and universities are hooked on 9-5 schedules in buildings that set vacant most of the time. There are multitudinous ways to provide quality education on the cheap, or on a budget, and to think outside the box. I almost learned Hebrew at one of those however it closed down. I would be happy to meet others interested in this idea of getting education pared down to bare bones expenses.

    william snover

  • William Snover

    PS Dr. David Haag has built seminaries all over the world using this concept, even in third world countries. In America the idea of a Bible College or Seminary is 500 acres of property with gymnasiums, swimming pools, basketball courts, soccer fields, administration buildings, parking lots, and so on. There IS a place for these types of expensive colleges and universities and seminaries, but there is a BIGGER place for learning in church basements, off hours, and so on. However the types of education that both the pulpit and the classroom provide in the normal church are for those who dabble in education, and they are geared for the 1-4 hour a week drive through type Christian… not those who want to be qualified to be president of Dallas Seminary some day or whatever. NOrthland
    Baptist Bible College tried to offer employment with the founder’s business to offeset expenses. so many possibiloities when we think outside the box;
    the box is not bad… and it is relavant for many, but not for the masses anymore. please email if interested.