I believe we need to make a fundamental shift in how we describe affordable theological education. Over the past few weeks I have had numerous conversations about the cost of education, the changes that are happening and what seminaries can or should be doing about them. Such conversations are obviously much more intricate than one could share in a blog post. However, there is one component of those conversations which I believe could be expounded upon here and that is how we describe or consider the concept of affordability. I have mentioned my desire to create a system of theological education that is accessible, affordable, and relevant. Let’s dig a little deeper into what I mean by affordable.

To get us started, I will share a few reasons why this seems to be an important topic.

  • Since 2001, the number of students entering seminary with over $40,000 in educational debt has increased by 143%
  • The cost of theological education is outpacing not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education price index
  • The primary reason students enroll in seminary is NOT to get a job in ministry
  • In a recent peer study of evangelical schools our research team noted that the average student at those schools increased his or her level of educational debt by 158% while in school
  • Nearly 70% of schools in ATS are struggling financially

Something isn’t working. Students are increasingly using debt to pay for a degree which they don’t necessarily plan to use to get a specific job. Schools are operating on financial models which, despite dramatic increases in the cost of tuition (350% since 1988), still leave them struggling financially. This may be related to our current understanding of affordable theological education.

Traditionally, we have said that the best way to make a seminary education “affordable” is to raise money for scholarships so that the cost of tuition can be decreased for the student. How is that working for us? Well, if we look at the data the answer seems to be that it isn’t. But why?

When we look at making education affordable through the lens of raising money for scholarships we are making a fundamental error. Scholarships do not make theological education affordable, they simply shift the burden of the cost from one part of the Church to another. Now, just to be clear, I think scholarships are great for students and they should always exist. My wife received a scholarship to attend seminary and we have a few great scholarship opportunities at Northern Seminary. I am not advocating for the abolition of scholarships for students. Instead, I would like us to recognize that scholarships do not make theological education affordable.

What is affordability?

When we consider affordability we need to have a broader view of the Church. The cost of theological education is a burden on the Church, not simply our students. Students who are considering full-time parish ministry upon graduation are greatly impacted by debt. It forces them into decisions based on money versus mission. Students who are not in seminary in order to get a job are saddled with debt even though they aren’t trying to get a new job. People who financially support seminaries are often rallied to “support our students” through gifts to scholarships. However, as any chief development officer at a seminary should be able to point out, if a seminary raised enough money to give every student at 100% tuition scholarship yet didn’t worrying about raising money for anything else, the seminary would go bankrupt. Traditionally, tuition does not cover the cost of educating students (this is true even at tuition-driven schools).

Instead, we need to consider the idea that affordable theological education means actually decreasing the cost to educate a student and therefore the actual price of tuition – not the discounted price. The work of a seminary is an integral part of the work of the Church.   Unfortunately, we may have created a system of theological education which is not sustainable, thereby alienating many who could benefit from what seminaries have to offer.

So What?

I could probably write 30 posts about the implications of the shift for which I am advocating here. However, let me touch on just a few ways this might impact our day-to-day work.

Integrated Innovation – I have been asked to lead a workshop at the upcoming CFOS Conference for ATS. The topic is “Moving Beyond Program Innovation: How Integrative Innovation Builds Institutional Strength.” In it, I will challenge us to recognize that we tend to approach innovation from a strictly programmatic level rather than looking very closely at all the integrated components. Significant innovation (and therefore true affordability) will come from diving deep into all the aspects of a seminary. How we organize the staff, manage student accounts, support students, pay faculty and staff, develop new initiatives, communicate with our constituency base, and much more. To make theological education affordable, we need to look at integrated innovation.

Consider Assumptions – Any type of innovation requires us to consider our assumptions. If there is one thing I think Northern has done very well over the past five years, it would probably be the ways in which we have challenged assumptions. We need to look closely at the assumptions which impact the work of our institutions. I am not asking us to change the values upon which theological is based, those must stay. However, when we dive into the assumptions inherent at any organization, I believe we can find some interesting facts. A good question to ask is, “Do we do “x thing” because we literally have to, or do we do it because someone at our organization made that rule long ago?”

Look Outside Ourselves – What if seminaries are not the holders of pedagogical truth and organizational wisdom? We can learn a lot by looking outside of the world of higher education, the church, and nonprofit management. As seminaries, we have a lot to offer and there are many things we can do better than anyone else. However, we must never be too proud to learn from those around us. What are others doing? How can we integrate some of that thinking?

Yes, fundraising and rallying support for the work of an institution is important. Scholarships are vital and we should continue asking people to participate in the work God is doing at our seminary through their gifts of time, financial resources, efforts, and abilities. At the same time we must reconsider what affordability truly means.

What did I miss? How does affordability impact your institution and students? Am I asking for too much?