The Future of Seminary: Free?

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.  You can see all of my posts in this symposium here.

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary made news last week, when they announced that beginning in 2015, they won’t be charging tuition anymore:

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS) will not charge tuition for students in its master’s degree programs in divinity, marriage and family therapy and religion beginning in 2015. Tuition is currently a little over $10,200.

“As a result of this bold decision, Louisville Seminary is poised to make not only a difference in the future of this school and in theological education, but also a difference for the future of the church,” said Pamela G. Kidd, chair of the Board of Trustees, following the trustees’ unanimous and enthusiastic vote.

The trustees also committed to raising about $17 million toward the program. The seminary’s current endowment is about $70 million. By 2021 the seminary intends to offer an additional stipend to every student to cover living expenses.

Total master’s degree enrollment will be capped at 130 ― down from about 150 currently ― to make the tuition-free program affordable and more selective. “Capping the size of entering classes will make full funding of each student an achievable goal within a relatively short time frame,” said Patrick Cecil, LPTS’s vice-president and CFO in a statement released by the seminary announcing the historic program.

Interesting, don’t you think?  I imagine that LPTS will suddenly become a very competitive place to get in to in 2015, which will inevitably raise the competency of of the student body.  How they’ll make it work financially is another question.  But at least if they go down, they’ll be going down in flames.

My only question is this: How many LPTS students are already going for free? I know from my experience at Princeton that most of the students who were on the PC(USA) ordination track didn’t pay for their education.  If most of their current students are already going for free, then I don’t know what the news is.

HT: Patrick Marshall

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  • Adam Marquette

    “I know from my experience at Princeton that most of the students who were on the PC(USA) ordination track didn’t pay for their education. If most of their current students are already going for free, then I don’t know what the news is.”

    curious…I am now an ordained minister with the UCC, but went through seminary as a candidate for ministry within the PC(USA). I’m still paying for my seminary education and will be for a while. In fact, money played a role in why I didn’t go to LPTS.

  • Wow. With most seminaries hurting financially, this seems like the exact opposite of what needs to be done! Yet, they may be on to something. It will certainly be interesting to see how many of their students attend for practically nothing. Additionally, I wonder how their facilities, programs, and course offerings compare with other schools and if they have any plans to scale anything down.

  • Jim

    I don’t know how many people have really heard much about LPTS. I, for one, have never heard of them. If they already pay tuition for 95% of students privately, why not push to provide free education for everyone and make a big brouhaha about it? As noted, competition to get into the school will probably go up so they get students who are smarter and more committed and a lot of attention from the tuition.

  • Dan Hauge

    The big question, of course, is how sustainable this will be. The other big question in my mind is, for Tony–do you see any model like this possibly working outside of a denomination-sized institution?

    I’d like to see fre (or at least a lot cheaper) programs offered for more non-traditional, non-residential type students. I admit I was surprised to see this happen at a school which is fully ‘traditional’ in all other ways (residential, tenured faculty, etc.)

  • I’m a 2005 LPTS grad. I also sit on the Presbyterian Church’s Committee on Theological Education. Objectively speaking, the 10 Presbyterian seminaries are consistently among the strongest in North America. LPTS is a school that is educating its students in light of post-modern theological and ecclesiological understandings. It’s just not making a big thing out of it. LPTS keeps its head down and does its work.

    A low-ish percentage of students received scholarships that made their education almost free. Many more of us, who were in the Presbyterian ordination process, received a Presbyterian tuition grant (it was nearly enough to cover tuition).

    Unlike the other cited seminary, Princeton, Louisville’s endowment has not been large enough to offer education virtually tuition free. One result is that LPTS has had to develop relationships with ecumenical partners resulting in a diverse mix of a student body. Along with a commitment to its Black Church Studies Program, this move by the LPTS board will mean that a wide variety of student – especially ones who now stand outside of the dominant religious culture – will be offered education at no cost.

    Other parts of the plan that few seem to be picking up on are:
    – Underwriting and institutionalizing the Doors to Dialogue (D2D) program, which prepares graduates for Christian pastoral leadership in intra-Christian, interfaith, and multi-cultural contexts;
    – Underwriting and expanding the Black Church Studies program, which is addressing the critical needs of African American church communities, while also offering exceptional opportunities for students to expand their awareness and sophistication in ministering to people in a variety of cultural and religious settings;
    – Creating an endowed fund to support expansion and maintenance of the Seminary’s Information Technology (IT) services that will augment the school’s instructional capacity and support resourcing of the church; and
    – Renovating student housing as an asset for attracting outstanding students to the Seminary’s residential program.

    I just might return to seminary.

    • Adam Marquette

      thanks for the insight landon…makes me want to do some continuing ed as well!

  • I meant to write “It was NOT nearly enough to cover tuition”.

    • Thanks, Landon. Let me ask you this: across the system of 10 PC(USA) seminaries, what percentage of PC(USA) students pay less than 75% of their tuition? I’m not asking how it’s paid for (grants, fellowships, seminaries, presbyteries). I’m asking how many students pay, and how much?

      I ask this because I’ve encountered several people who chose to go PC(USA) because their seminary was basically paid for.

      • Lemme dig up some notes from some past meetings, and get back to you on that with specifics.

        As for generalities, I feel confident in saying (based on Committee on Theological Education meetings I’ve been in) that this action was taken by LPTS to address the injustice in our denomination that we are graduating student with unacceptable amounts of educational debt.

        • Adam Marquette

          agreed…in fact, presbyteries in Ohio (and nationwide) have explored how to encourage seminary graduates to accept calls to smaller PCUSA churches through programs to help pay off debt to those that respond to calls to “smaller” churches…
          “The PC(USA) is working on a number of fronts to address these larger pastoral leadership and economic issues. The Board of Pensions recently renewed its program to help pay off the seminary indebtedness of first-call pastors who agree to serve small churches.”

          • Thanks for linking that article, Adam.

            I’m not finding my notes, but have requested info to answer Tony’s question. At this point, I think it suffices to say that when the COTE (which includes the presidents of the 10 PCUSA seminaries) put concerted effort into this, seminarian debt load is a major issue.

            By the way, I was a part of team who wrote the “Raising Up Leaders…” paper referenced in the article and can provide a copy if anyone wants one.

  • Tony,

    Maybe you could speak to the experience of going to a historically “reformed” seminary and a very “denominational” seminary while not have allegiances to either of those things. Actually, you have been quite outspoken about both…

    As young emerging leaders and theologians consider some of these denominationally driven and historically reformed seminaries, what would you say to that?


  • Without spending a lot of time on it, I’m not going to be able to find the data to answer Tony’s specific question (“75%?”). However, here’s what I was able to get from our PCUSA person charged with financial aid resourcing:

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average debt for 2008-2009 academic year: $13,200, Cumulative: $31,400 (2008-2009) with 57% of all students not borrowing, 31.3% borrowing less than the maximum, and 11.7% borrowing the maximum ($20,500). Whereas, ten years prior 93% of professional degree theological students did not borrow during their graduate program.

    Here’s a report by Auburn Seminary about Theological Education debt across the board:,1 It even has a nice video to watch.

  • Sarah E

    At Columbia – about 75% or more of the true cost of tuition/education is already underwritten by endowment funds – tuition – a bit over $10000 per year – is also covered for a good % of students thru various sources including financial aid/work study, other scholarships from CTS and elsewhere.

    The rub often comes in the other expenses – housing/room/board, utilities, medical insurance, books, etc. Tuition is just part of the equation – albeit an important part. My experience was similar to Tony’s – I didn’t pay tuition – and scholarships/church support/other gifts from a variety of sources including my parents (this as a single mother of two teens) and my own savings paid for the rest of the story.

    But as Tony mentioned – I suspect that for a good many students in the ordination track for a denomination or supported by a particular congregation at a good number of mainline seminaries – tuition is mostly covered.