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A Look at the Health of Theological Education

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Faculty members at theological schools are highly satisfied with their jobs. They are bidding higher for a select group of students. But those students are incurring far more educational debt than in the past. Those are among the conclusions of three studies. The studies, which were completed before the economic downturn,  update conclusions drawn 10 years ago on the subjects of theological faculty, seminary financing and student debt. They contain much good news and much that will require further conversation and closer study.

First, the good news: In a study called "Signs of the Times," researcher Barbara Wheeler and her team questioned 1,212 faculty and doctoral students in schools that provide the largest number of faculty to U.S. and Canadian theological schools. She found that faculty members are publishing more, while retaining a strong commitment to teaching. Faculty and students are active participants in religious life and give significant service to congregations and denominations. Seminaries and divinity schools are more selective and admit fewer, but more motivated, students. And, best of all, theological faculty express a high morale and a deep commitment to their calling.

The study, however, points to some areas of concern. It found, for example, that theological schools are slow to change and don't adapt readily to technological innovations. Faculties have to work harder to achieve racial and gender diversity, though they have made slight gains. And possibly most troubling, the numbers of current faculty and doctoral students ordained or licensed dropped 10 percent in the last decade. At the same time, the number of doctoral students who defined their field as religion — rather than theology — rose.

This shift in self-perception may reflect a higher societal acceptance of the field of religion over theology. But it also has practical implications on future students.

"The concern is about the curriculum of seminaries and whether they'll orient it adequately to meet the needs of students who are going out to churches," says Wheeler. "Not all kinds of doctoral preparation are equally helpful to future ministries."

The second study, on seminary financing, found that gifts from individual donors rose sharply from 1993 to 2003, while other sources of revenue remained flat or fell.

Anthony Ruger, a senior research fellow at the Auburn Center, compared the finances of 143 theological schools and found that individual gifts of $5,000 or more accounted for the steepest rise of all sources of revenue. Specifically, he found that in 2003 individual giving increased 56 percent, from $127 in 1993 to $198 million in 2003.

“If you’re going to be a seminary president, you want to look at who are the best potential donors,” said Ruger. “Hire a fundraiser and work hard on cultivation.”

Other sources of revenue — such as tuition, investment returns and church support — performed poorly. Among nine denominations surveyed, six gave less money to theological schools over the past decade. Only three — the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church — gave more, though not enough to keep up with inflation. The stock market fall from 2000 to 2003 hurt seminaries too, especially those that rely heavily on investment returns or endowment income. Those seminaries responded by cutting budgets and tightening spending.

The third study, entitled The Gathering Storm, also undertaken by Ruger, contained mostly bad news. It found that graduate student debt increased dramatically in the period from 1991 to 2001. Fewer than half of graduate students in theology incurred educational debts in 1991. By 2001, 63 percent had taken out loans.

Part of the reason for the increase in educational debt has to do with government regulations. The U.S. Department of Education allowed students to borrow a total of $18,500 in Stafford loans in 2001. In 1991, students were only allowed to borrow $7,500.  As a result, the average debt for graduate students in theological studies rose to $15,599 in 2001 from $5,267 in 1991.

Ruger also surveyed graduates of the classes of 1994 and 1997, and asked them how they were coping with their debt. Fifty-two percent said they wished they had borrowed less. More troubling perhaps, 24 percent agreed with the statement, “I have been late with a payment or missed a payment because I did not have the money.”

There was one hopeful sign in the study. Those students who consulted with financial aid planners at their schools seemed better able to cope with repayment schedules.

“The amount of debt was less important than the quality of financial information they received,” says Ruger. “Those who believe they were well-advised experienced less stress in debt repayment.”

Since the majority of graduate students go on to serve churches that do not pay well, financial advice on the realities of clergy income was particularly crucial.

“What we would like to see are students making careful, informed decisions,” Ruger says, “rather than making decisions accidentally or by default.”

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