Since 2003, total enrollment in seminaries across the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) has declined by about 7% and giving has decreased by about 2%. During that same period of time, the amount seminaries are spending to deliver theological education has risen by about 30%. If you are a visual person, you can see all of this in Graph #1. These opposing realities are having a significant impact on seminaries across North America.

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expenses at ATS schools are rising while enrollment and giving are declining

Nearly 70% of schools in ATS are struggling financially. Many seminaries are searching for ways to bridge the gap between rising costs and declining enrollment. Something needs to change. At Sioux Falls Seminary, we are committed to developing a new way forward.

This article is the third in a series about the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary. In the first article, I shared the common story behind many students who consider seminary. The second article addressed a few of the problems with the traditional concept of the “full-time” student. Findings like the ones listed above and below should cause those serving in theological education to reflect upon the inherent cost structures in our seminaries.

Let me share some of the reflections we have had here at Sioux Falls Seminary. Our conversations have been based on data related to freestanding schools within the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Freestanding seminaries, those not related to a college or university, comprise nearly 70% of schools within ATS. Sioux Falls Seminary is included in that group.

If we look at the cost structures of these schools and the ways in which they have “overcome” rising institutional costs, it leads us to believe that something may be wrong with the current system of theological education. Based on the data from ATS, it seems as though the gap between revenue and expenses is being filled by tuition from students.

Over the last 13 years, net tuition, which is the actual cash received from students, is outpacing the Consumer Price Index, by a wide margin. Students are being asked to pay significantly more in tuition than they were in 2001. Of course, many will say, “Tuition across all of higher education is rising.” That is true. The number people use to track the change in the cost of higher education is called the Higher Education Price Index. Net tuition at ATS schools is outpacing the Higher Education Price Index by nearly 60%. In simple terms, the burden we are placing on students is quite heavy, and it is increasing at a startling pace.

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Tuition at ATS schools is rising significantly faster than the higher education price index.

How can we change this staggering reality? Many people suggest raising more money for scholarships as a solution. Scholarships are important, and students should receive them. Unfortunately, providing more scholarships simply shifts the burden of cost to the wider church. Instead, I believe we need to consider what affordability means.

To make theological education truly affordable, we need to reimagine the systems of support, delivery, partnership, and resource management. In short, we need to function and think differently.

Our goal with the Kairos Project is not only to test a different model of education, but also to test different models for student support, faculty involvement, and institutional structures. Rather than a standard credit hour-based tuition, students pay a very low monthly fee – one that is roughly 1/4th the cost of a traditional Master of Divinity. It could be that this new model allows for us to charge significantly less in tuition while maintaining high levels of interaction and quality.

We need to be passionate about designing systems of theological education that are less expensive to operate. Best of all, these new systems of theological education will pass on savings to students—giving them even more freedom to follow God and participate in the work of the Kingdom.

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote for Sioux Falls Seminary. The original article is available here.