January 4, 2016
Operational Models and Educational Debt in ATS Seminaries
Why do we care? What do we know? What can we do?
The rate of change in the price of theological education is outpacing the higher education price index, which means that it is not only prohibitively expensive but that it’s also on pace to be completely out of reach. The church deserves better, and we are called to serve God by developing servants to participate in God’s mission. If those servants are kept away by cost and debt, then we are failing. Current models are based upon assumptions built many years ago for a different time. One need only look at the declining levels of enrollment across the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the size of the operating deficits at many schools, and the debt levels of graduating students to see that current systems are inadequate.
As these trends have progressed over the past decade, the Lilly Endowment began to notice a growing issue related to the economic challenges seminarians were facing and asked schools to consider various ways this issue could be addressed. Northern Seminary, Sioux Falls Seminary, and Indiana Wesleyan University worked together to design a research project that would look into the funding and operational assumptions that undergird theological education.
I had the opportunity of co-leading this project alongside Dr. Harriet Rojas, Business Administration Professor and Chair of the DeVoe School of Business at Indiana Wesleyan University. Our research involved schools both inside and outside of the theological realm. Over the next few weeks, we will share a few articles that have emerged as a result of this project. We share these articles for a few reasons.
First, they are meant to start a conversation. This project was very qualitative in nature. While there were a few quantitative aspects, it was not a project that produced mounds of statistical results. Rather, it was meant to spark a conversation around ways in which we may need to think differently, or in some cases simply think, about how we structure the operational and educational models of theological education. It is through robust conversation that we will learn from one another. “As iron sharpens iron, one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
Second, we hope to provide a few tangible steps that institutions can take to address the growing levels of educational debt being amassed by seminarians. In some cases, this may be as simple as conducting some internal research, while in other cases one might need to think about adjusting program outcomes, course structures, or strategic plans.
Finally, we will suggest a few ideas that could have lasting impact but need further consideration. Articles that fall into this category are meant to be provocative statements about current realities—statements that should cause us to think critically about the future of our industry.
I hope that you will follow along over the next several weeks. I would love to hear your feedback and thoughts!