A Look at Affordable Theological Education

May 16, 2016

Ephesians 4:12 sums up quite well the broad work of theological education.  After listing various roles within the church, Paul states, “Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.”  At Sioux Falls Seminary, we do this by developing servants who will engage in God’s work.  This means helping make it possible for individuals to serve God and his kingdom in the unique ways in which he’s called them to participate.

One of the ways we are working to make this possible is by creating systems of theological education that are “affordable, accessible, relevant, and faithful.”  Today, I am going to take a closer look at affordable theological education.

Through our work, we’ve come to realize that the price students pay for theological education is too high.  The average cost of a Master of Divinity program is roughly $40,000!  This is 78% higher than it was in 2001.  As an industry, the primary mechanism to create “affordable education” has been raising money to offer more scholarships.  While this is important work, it isn’t enough.  Scholarships simply shift the burden from students to those who give to our schools.  While seminaries have been spending time and energy raising funds for scholarships over that last two decades, our total expenditures, as an industry, have grown at a rate almost three times faster than the rate of inflation.  Therefore, we believe the only way to make theological education truly affordable is through operational changes and not simply more scholarships.

In 2009 as we moved into our new facility, our annual budget was $3,500,000.  Our current annual budget is $2,725,000, a $775,000 difference from five years ago.  We achieved these operational efficiencies through innovative staffing models, technology solutions, and maximizing assets.

Staffing Models
There are many things that must happen to effectively operate a school.  What we learned is that if we focus on and invest in our relationships with students, there are many tasks that do not need to be done by our staff.  Instead, we developed partnerships and outsourced several tasks, freeing us up to interact more with students, givers, clients, and referral networks.  Some tasks include financial aid processing, business office functions, IT, building maintenance, and library administration.  We also implemented technology to give students the ability to register for courses, see and pay bills, and track their program progress.

Educational Models
Technology has allowed students to interact with courses in a new way.  We have created omni-channel courses that allow students to participate in class either live online or sometime later.  In doing so, we increased access to theological education without needing to raise cost. We also ensured that students are able to take more courses with our full-time or regular faculty because the new model requires few adjunct professors. In addition to enhancing access to courses and faculty, these new models also helped us save nearly $100,000.  What’s more, as we’ve added new students and new programs, we have also created faculty models in which costs grow incrementally by student, thereby making it easier to increase and decrease costs as student enrollment ebbs and flows each semester.

Maximizing Assets
We are blessed with a state-of-the-art facility.  In the past two years, we have quadrupled its use.  Currently, there isn’t a single open office.  Along with Sioux Falls Seminary and Sioux Falls Psychological Services, we have welcomed Embrace Church Summit Ave. Campus, VantagePoint3, Restoration Generation, the South Dakota Community Foundation, Augustana University, the North American Baptist Heritage Commission, and many other partners into our space.  This not only generates revenue, but it also gives our students and staff the opportunity to interact with these ministries.

We continue to seek out new and innovative ways to make theological education more affordable.  As we do this, we can reach more of the individuals God is calling to participate in his mission. Sioux Falls Seminary has not raised tuition in 4 years.  And the hope is that our next tuition change will be a reduction.  Through these operational changes, the generosity of many partners, and by the grace of God, we will create an affordable system of theological education.

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