If your school retains 80% of its Master of Divinity students from one academic year to the next, that means your graduation rate may somewhere around 41% – which isn’t a great graduation rate. At the ATS CFOS Conference this week, we learned that according to ATS estimations the average MDiv student in an ATS school takes about 5 years to complete the degree (not surprising). We also learned that the estimated average retention rate was 80% (percentage of students retained from one year to the next). When those two numbers are put together, we can create the estimated graduation rate of 41%. Think about it, if 100 students enroll in your school in the fall and then you retain 80% of them each year (which means you lose 20% each year), 41 will still be standing at graduation. See image below.

Here is some more information that might be helpful. Over the past decade, the number of new students in MDiv programs at seminaries across ATS has outpaced the number of graduates. The number of new students has been anywhere between 120% and 135% of graduates. However, total enrollment at ATS schools has been declining each year since 2004. So, if we are enrolling more students than we are graduating and enrollment is declining, that can only mean we are failing to retain a LARGE number of students. This is supported by the estimated graduation rate I calculated above.

Student retention is a huge issue. I believe it is a good example of a symptom of “dis-integration,” the topic of my last blog post.

When we create new programs or courses within theological education, we tend to do so without thinking about the broader system required to truly support a sustainable model of theological education. When creating new programs, we must also be thinking about the financial models for those programs, the student retention models, the support systems, and much more.

Retention is connected to program formats, tuition structures, advising systems, mentoring systems, staffing structures, program requirements, faculty interaction, course location, marketing strategies, fundraising initiatives, and enrollment management philosophies. We see schools developing new degree programs because they believe the MDiv is no longer the “gold standard” degree. While that may or may not be true (always depends on who you talk to), I want to make sure we consider the fact that we must be thinking about the entire model, not simply the degree. If we don’t, the retention and graduation issues we see now may simply be repeated.

Do you know the retention rate at your school? How do you define retention? How would retention impact your enrollment? Do you know the cost to recruit a student versus the cost to retain a student? If your retention rate is 80%, how might you move it to 90%? Is there a way to shorten your time to completion without requiring the “traditional” form of full-time education?

Share your thoughts! I would love to hear them.