Friday, August 23, 2013

Seminary & School Debt - Can Ministry Move Forward Like this?

After 15 years of service as a professor, I had a new experience this past week.  A talented, smart, winsome student came to me with his school bill in hand asking me if I could help him pray about and find someone perhaps who could help him.  His current need (3rd semester of 8 semesters likely) was over $10,000.00.  WOW!

Where I work, many years ago, visionary leaders created an intern program that offered profound tuition discounts for ministry students engaged in internships.  Offering a scaled up-scholarship where the scholarship dollars grew with each year, so that Seniors in the program attended with full-tuition remission,this program has been cut down in cash value over the years, and restructured intentionally to get students "in" the University doors.  In other words, it has been clearly stated to faculty that this university has moved to using scholarship funds to get students in the door now - with a changed focus from getting students to finish - and to finish debt free. [Naturally, the university wants learners to finish, too . . . but the incentive and focus has shifted, with ideological shifts that favor entrance into study programs and away from ministerial students graduating with less debt.]

I note these things as I just read this article about a trend regarding Seminary students graduating with significant Seminary debt.  The dollar amounts in the article cited here, are consistent with actual statistics one of my Theology & Ministry colleagues has maintained for our undergraduate Theology & Ministry learners over the past 15 years.  The article cites:

It no longer is unusual for seminary graduates to leave school with $70,000 to $80,000 in debt, Sharon Miller, associate director of the Auburn center told the Huffington Post in 2012.
An official at one Baptist seminary, who asked not to be identified, said a recent graduating class revealed the depth of the issue. Of 57 graduates, 21 had no debt, six owed less than $20,000, another six between $20,000 and $50,000, eight between $50,000 and $90,000 and 11 more than $100,000 — all acquired while at the seminary.
This is a complex set of things for me, personally, in several ways.

First and foremost, it has morally contingent and ethically challenging issues personally.  I know - and have always known, of course! - that "my" students incur expense and debt in order to take "my" classes.  But, in truth, the weight of that did not sink in to me as profoundly as when this single student had a single current amount owed of over $10K.  That is a LOT of money!  And, my salary is a part of what he is paying.  Honestly, perhaps just $20 or perhaps as much as $200 of his money comes to me and the rest goes to the "University" economy (sports teams, utilities, maintenance of the grounds and buildings, buses, new buildings, and the list goes on!.)  And yet, my participation in this thing called the University requires of him this significant debt.  I feel bad about that as I'm not sure "every" learner should pay for "all aspects" of any Universities structure and governance - and yet it has become an accepted norm.  [The highest salary ranking faculty members at many Universities - with the highest cost programs - are the football programs.  Of course, I know, too these are income generating streams, too - - my notes here, though, about about ministerial preparation programs though, which do not need football as a connection for Church service.]

Second, these issues cause me to think about a future for theological education that could create new opportunities for young people to train in ministry - without being saddled with this debt.  I know there are ways - and I have visions for possible futures - where the right amount of contributions from large donors (denominational bodies could do it - or through private funding) coupled with technological options (internet, MOOCs)- could create options for ministry preparation that would be much more affordable theological education, at a significantly less cost.  [This MOOC hopes to drop educational costs by over 80%! ]

Someday, I hope the intersections of my life will allow for the training of more ministers, more effectively (efficiently?) with radically lower indebtedness for education -  in order to better FREE ministers from educational costs and debt so that their life engagement in ministry might be empowered for service!

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