Operational Models and Educational Debt in ATS Seminaries
Why do we care? What do we know? What can we do?
The Imaginary Correlation
It’s no secret that theological education is prohibitively expensive. The average Master of Divinity program costs $40,000, or $1,100 per month, if a student finishes in three years. Since 1988, the price of theological education has risen at a rate that is nearly three times faster than the rate of inflation. The number of students graduating from seminaries having incurred over $30,000 in educational debt while in seminary has increased by nearly 300% since 1996.
Many in the world of theological education, myself included, assumed that one of the ways to have a significant impact on student debt would be to decrease the price of education. It seems to be common sense. If the price goes down, students don’t need as much money to pay for school and would, therefore, not need to borrow as much money to pay for it. As part of a research project led by Dr. Harriet Rojas and myself, we sought to test this hypothesis.
To clarify, our hypothesis was that schools with a higher rate of tuition would have students with a higher cumulative amount of debt. This would hold true if we used either gross tuition charges or net tuition charges.
We visited five schools and found that no correlation exists. In fact, schools with extremely low tuition rates relative to the others still had an average student debt level equal to that of its industry. Using a larger set of data that included all schools within the Association of Theological Schools, we again found no correlation. Put simply, a school’s tuition rate has absolutely no correlation to student debt load! Some low-price schools have high average student debt loads. Likewise, many high-price schools have low average student debt loads. Price of tuition is not the primary factor when it comes to student debt. This was confirmed in a recent article published by the Association of Theological Schools.
This is an important finding because it confirms that student debt is a multifaceted issue. We must address it from many angles rather than assume that price is the driving force. Price is an issue, and we must continue to drive the price down, but we must also think about our conversations, how we calculate Cost of Attendance, and how we are helping students in the area of biblical stewardship and personal finance.