Reflecting on Truly Affordable Education

September 10, 2018

About nine years ago, I was sitting at a conference for seminary administrators that was hosted by the Association of Theological Schools.  One of the presentations was on fundraising trends within the industry.  The speaker spent a lot of time talking about how sources of giving were shifting and how schools needed to get better at “raising money from individual donors.”  His reason for needing to raise more money was that “high quality theological education will always be expensive.”  This was also the reason for why tuition prices and student debt continued to rise.

I walked away from that session both depressed and invigorated.  It was depressing to see so many people simply agree that theological education had to be expensive and then turn to “more money” as the answer.  At the same time, it was invigorating because I love a challenge!  It was in that moment that I set out on what has been a decade-long journey of making theological education affordable.

As it turns out, high quality theological education doesn’t need to be expensive for students.  By decreasing what it costs for Sioux Falls Seminary to serve an individual student, we have been able to pass on those savings to students in the form of reduced tuition.

Too often, affordability is framed around the price of tuition.  If the portion of tuition paid by a student is low, then the education is affordable.  The problem with this simplified way of looking at affordability is that people tend to turn a blind eye toward what it costs to operate a school.  Without fundamentally changing how we operate within the system of theological education, we will never actually create something that is affordable.  If all we do is raise a bunch of money in order to discount tuition, we are only shifting the burden of cost to someone else.

Instead of defining affordability simply in terms of the price of tuition, seminaries must begin to define it in terms of what it costs to serve each individual student.  For Sioux Falls Seminary this means that we have engaged in some rather disruptive endeavors.  As a result, tuition is 75% lower than the average for seminaries in North America.  But, even more exciting, is that our cost per student has fallen dramatically!  In short, students are able to pay less tuition because we have developed a system of operation that is genuinely more effective and efficient.

If you have followed along for the past several weeks, you have read about partnerships, collaboration, a non-competitive spirit, the importance of contextualization, and more. Each of these are tremendously important qualities of a system of theological education that is sincerely affordable.  Partnerships and collaboration enable us to leverage the good Kingdom work being done throughout the church.  Contextualization provides learning and experience that is impossible to replicate in a classroom without astronomical amounts of money (even then, I’m not sure it can actually be replicated).  I could go on, but I think the point is clear.  Affordability is a deeply rooted value at Sioux Falls Seminary.  As it turns out, when we embrace the implications of creating a collaborative Kingdom-oriented system of theological education, affordability is a natural byproduct.  This reminds me of Psalm 133, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!  For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”

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