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As a group, incoming students are saddled with over $85,000,000 in educational debt BEFORE they enroll.

Since 2001, the percentage of incoming students that enter seminary with more than $25,000 in educational debt has increased by 143%.

The majority of incoming students will find seminary to be nothing like (or at least very different from) their undergraduate experience.

We have reached the third and final infographic! Like the first and second installments, today’s infographic is based on the 2011-2012 ATS ESQ. During the 2011-2012 academic year (the mostly recently fully completed academic year), 6,900 students at 161 ATS schools completed a survey for incoming students. Today we are looking at what they bring with them to seminary – debt, experiences, degrees – the results are interesting. Student debt is a huge issue and will require creative approaches to making theological education accessible, affordable, and relevant. Also important to note is the fact that incoming students, for the most part, haven’t experienced anything like seminary. This should be taken into account when developing programs, teaching courses, serving students, and much more.

What do you think? What stands out to you?

NOTE: The leadership reference is related to a subset of students (MDiv), not ALL incoming students. The important thing to note is that students are coming in with leadership experience and we could more fully integrate that experience than we already are – that could have profound impact on the entire system of theological education.

  1. Just trying to give you good feedback here below. By the way, the graphic person is amazing who does this work.

    Shouldn’t there be another category called “private religious” in the “Type of Institution” graphic. I don’t understand that graphic: two similar sized circles.

    I also don’t like the 85 million statistic. That does not mean anything except that together all the students surveyed have a lot of debt. Meaningless, really. Just a big number. The other stats are very helpful.

    Also it would be good to have the “religion” next to the “theology” in the undergrad majors graphic so you could easily see that chunk. Maybe put that next to “humanities” as well since all of those students have done significant writing which prepares them well for the seminary experience. (Though I always like social science, physical science, etc. majors because they add something different than humanities majors and do just as well academically).

  2. Great feedback, Andy. Yes, David Pohlmeier is a great graphic designer – spread the word! He and I have been working together for about 4 years. Here are a few things that might be helpful.

    First, the point you made about the circles is the result of a typo! Thanks for catching that. The smaller circle was supposed to be “Private Religious” (which we have now adjusted to be correct). The comment about “56%” is the point the circles are trying to make. Less than half of incoming students come from private religious schools while most come from public or non-religious private schools.

    I agree with your point about the $85 million being a big number. That was my goal. Because of the way the data was collected it is difficult to break it down by student. The average comes to around $12,00 to $13,000 per incoming student. When I tested the infographic with a few audiences, most preferred the $85 million because of what it means for the “system” of theological education. The $85 million is a big number which is meant to say we have an issue across the “industry” of theological education. ATS as a whole is about the size of Arizona State University. I wanted a number that could speak to the industry as a whole because we have an issue as an industry. The Lilly Endowment just announced a program which aims to address this issue. I believe the $85 million is evidence of an industry issue.

    Your are correct about many degrees requiring writing. I believe the issue is larger than writing. Seminary is simply a different experience (as it should be). Religion/theology degrees are the closest. The atmosphere is different, the approach to the Bible is different, and the relationship with the professors is different. You are very correct regarding the types of students that do well. Many engineers do well at Northern Seminary. An undergraduate degree that required a lot of writing and research does not necessarily equate to excelling in seminary. The main point is that incoming students will find the entire seminary experience to be much different than previous experiences. Therefore, I believe seminaries need to pay more attention to the “on-boarding” process than has been done in the past, especially when we consider the fact that more and more students are part-time students without the traditional benefits of full-time study.

    Thanks again for the feedback. The conversation is valuable. Hopefully this explains some of the reasons for the choices.

  3. Good work, Greg. Fun to get to know you through these interactions. You’re a good thinker and gifted. I’m glad Northern Seminary and ATS have you working with them. I look forward to continuing to cross paths and in the future I won’t be so critical. Again, you’re doing superb work here.

    1. Thanks, Andy. You never need to apologize for being critical. Conversation is what brings value. Your questions are good. We’re all here to serve the Church so the more we can push and learn from each other the better everything will be. Thanks for taking the time to read through these posts.

  4. The percentage of students with debt under $10,000, etc. is totally confusing. I don’t see anything adding up to 51%. It looks to me like the percentages add up either to 15% or 150%, neither of which makes any sense. As a retired pastor and seminary administrator with a background in math, it seems I should be able to figure this out!

    1. Dave, thanks for stopping by! I am sorry the graphic caused some frustration. The dollar signs are supposed to be a visual representation of the debt levels relative to each other. The top of the scale was “chopped off” so that the relative nature of the levels could be more obviously seen. Therefore, 5 vertical dollar signs do not equal 100%. Don’t worry, your math is great.

      We went back and forth on how to show those numbers and decided the relative nature was more important than the actual numbers. To us, the numbers which seemed to be most important were that the group came in with $85 million in educational debt and that the number who have less than $10,000 is equal to the number that have more than $40,000. On the bright side, as a whole, the group actually comes in with a little less educational debt than the average undergraduate student. However, that may be due to the fact that many are coming to seminary many years after completing their undergraduate program which means they may have already paid some of their undergraduate debt.

      Here are the exact statistics if you would like them. Of the 51% that come in with educational debt:

      20% have less than $10,000
      24% have between $10,000 to $19,999
      24% have between $20,000 and $29,999
      13% have between $30,000 and $39,999
      20% have more than $40,000

      If we change that to a percentage of the entire 6,900 (remember 49% do not come in with educational debt), we get the following:

      10% have less than $10,000
      12% have between $10,000 to $19,999
      12% have between $20,000 and $29,999
      7% have between $30,000 and $39,999
      10% have more than $40,000

      I hope this helps.

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