Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Too Poor to Take a Vow of Poverty

I just saw this report this evening about how seminary students in the U.S are in increasingly dire straits when it comes to the cost of theological education.  In short, more and more people are leaving seminary with increasingly high amounts of debt, with less and less jobs and lower pay coming their way upon completion.  This is an issue that is obviously on my radar screen, given that I work in ministry and completed seminary just a little over two months ago.

Praise God that I was able to leave seminary debt-free.  My brothers and sisters at Riverview Baptist Church graciously paid my way through seminary - an expense of more that $60,000 in total (which actually appears to be on the lighter side, since it's apparently not unusual to leave seminary between $70,000 - $80,000 in debt).  This is an amount of money that I would have not been able to pay myself (more on that in a minute), and student loans are not an option - not because I wouldn't qualify (pretty much everybody does), but because I couldn't add that much more debt to our already existing debt in good conscience.  It's incredible to see how much average tuition costs have risen even within the last 10 years.

If we consider the fact that a Masters of Divinity takes an average of almost 7 years to complete (according to Bethel when I first expressed interest in the seminary back in 2007), combined with a median income of $44,140 for MDiv. recipients, and you can see why people are in trouble when it comes to student loan debt.  People are defaulting on loans, postponing marriage, delaying purchases of homes, and even filing bankruptcy at an increasing rate, largely due to the high costs of seminary.  Something is wrong with this picture.

The article offers some possible solutions to correct the situation, only one of which I find to be worth consideration.  But before this conversation even starts, I think seminaries and seminarians need to take a long hard look at what the Bible says about debt.  In my opinion, seminaries bear almost as much responsibility for this issue as the students do (if not an equal amount, or maybe even a greater amount).  Seminaries run the theological education "racket" and a lot of people won't be getting ministry jobs without a seminary education.  Seminaries know this.  I can't say for sure, and I don't have any evidence or experience that would suggest that seminaries "price gouge," but I wonder if this knowledge comes into view when these institutions are setting their tuition costs.  I hope not.

The article lists four ways (among others) that seminaries and students are looking into reducing student loan debt: 1) making more scholarship and grant money available; 2) cutting the costs of education in order to enable students who are working full time and attending class part time to be able to afford school; 3) increase financial education amongst students (e.g., better budgeting to accommodate school costs); and 4) denying admission to people whom the seminaries have determined will not be able to manage their debt.

None of these solutions are adequate, in my opinion, and don't actually address the real issue.  The first option does not address the main problem at all: seminary is too expensive, and graduates don't make enough money to be able to pay down their tuition costs in a reasonable amount of time.  Giving more students "free" money still means that tuition costs will remain high and increase even higher as time goes on.

The second solution is getting warmer, but is still lacking in addressing the problem comprehensively.  The issue is not with part-time students, but with all students.  Most of the people I went to school with were full time students anyway, and they still worked full time jobs (including me)!

The third solution is no solution at all, and certainly would not have worked for me.  "Better" budgeting wouldn't have worked for me.  There is simply no more money to put towards education, no matter how streamlined my budget is.  Even if I could manage it, that means I've got $60,000 hanging over my head for the next 30 years.  I'd have the loan paid off by the time I'm ready to leave the ministry.  How is that a solution?

The fourth option is absolutely ludicrous.  You can't deny someone who is called to ministry the training he needs to be able to follow God's call on his life.  Many denominations require a seminary education as a prerequisite to ordination, including my own.  So then, if you deny someone admission to seminary, you've essentially denied their call into ministry.  That person will have to seek out some kind of ministry that doesn't require a formal education (this is definitely a possibility for someone who can't afford seminary, and there's definitely nothing shameful about something other than pastoral ministry, but it certainly isn't ideal for that person).  Are we really at a point where we are going to turn people away from the ministry because they can't afford it?  That would be a terrible shame.

During my time in seminary (particularly at Bethel Seminary), I observed what I considered to be a colossal waste of tuition money, mostly in the form of wasted class time.  In one of my classes, all students were excused from class for an hour in order to practice "solitude."  I don't remember the exact figures, but each student in that class paid somewhere around $45.00 for that hour of solitude.  Each student.  There were also countless times where I was released from class early, and times when I was given what was obviously busy work that was assigned for no other reason than to fill class time.  Moreover, almost every class I participated in had students work in groups for periods of class time, which in my opinion, is an extremely poor use of class time (I came to learn from masters in their field, not from people who are at best, as smart as me and at worst, no offense, less knowledgable than me).  In total, I would estimate that my seminary education could have been thousands of dollars less expensive if I was not charged for these wasted periods of class time.

It is in this sense where I think seminaries bear a good chunk of responsibility for using their resources wisely, and additionally, being good stewards with tuition money.  With all due respect, giving 20 students an hour of solitude to the tune of $45.00 per hour, per student, is absolutely terrible (sinful?) stewardship.  I made sure to note these instances on all my student evaluations, even suggesting that the seminary should cut back on credit hours per course if they couldn't fill the class time.

If seminaries are going to charge what they're charging, and given the difficulties students have of handling the costs incurred by their education, then seminaries need to make sure that they education they are offering is actually worth the money.  If it's not, then tuition costs need to be adjusted accordingly.  I think this would be a good starting point when thinking of ways to address the current crisis (and it is a crisis, considering this could have a significant negative influence on future ministers entering the ministry).

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