The new academic year is beginning for colleges, universities and seminaries. As students prepare to take classes one ritual many of them will participate in is the walk to the financial aid office. There they will attempt to get scholarships and grants to help pay the ever increasing price of tuition. Many will end up with an application for student loan.
Student loans have been a part of the US educational system for some time. We were all told that if we invested in a degree we would have a better shot at a higher paying job. And in some ways that was true. But over the last two decades student loans have increased substantially and the pundits are now warning that, like the dot-coms and housing, this is the next “bubble” to burst.
As a professor at a seminary I have been concerned about the rising level of debt. It is something that I have been aware of for some time. Students are taking out most or all of their tuition in loans and they are using some for living expenses. The result? They are leaving seminary with debt ranging between $35 to $40,000. The problem, however, is that 2011 statistics from the dept. of labor indicate that the average clergy salary is $44,140. DavidBriggs notes that some clergy are having to postpone starting families or are facing bankruptcy.
In other recent articles a former ORU student suggests that while seminary won’t solve your doctrinal problems it will increase your debt. In the WSJ Russell Moore suggests that denominations do more to help seminarians pay for their education. And fellow-blogger, Brian Leport, shares his own experience as a recent graduate as well as some sage advice.
As a professor who works at a seminary and went to seminary I have two perspectives on the situation. I realize that I am, by virtue of my position, part of the problem. One reason that tuition increases happen each year is because the expenses related to paying me go up. At the same time, it would be unfair to suggest that I am “well-off.” For instance, although the seminary is part of a university I am paid less than my colleagues in religious studies up the street. No sour grapes here, well maybe a little, but my point is I am not rolling in dough.
But I also have some observations/suggestions as I watch students come to class via a loan.
1. Part of the student loan problem in seminary starts in undergrad. Many students come to seminary with $25,000 or more in debt. Again, this is a two edged sword. You took out loans to get the degree which you needed to go to seminary. Perhaps one answer is to take a break between degrees and work to pay down that debt. Students always seem to be in such a rush to finish. I understand that, but taking 2, 3 or even 5 years to gain some maturity and financial freedom might not be a bad idea if you know you are going into a field that doesn’t pay all that well. Unless you plan on being a successful televangelist, chances are you won’t be very well-off.
2. Cut up the credit card! Too many people are using their cards to get the through. No, no, no. My wife worked in the business office when I was in grad school and she told me how students would come in with two and three cards trying to spread out their bill. Again, if you are going into ministry, credit card debt is not a good way to start.
3. Work. I know that many of my students work as well as school. I also know that it adds stress to life. But a few years of stress now can help prevent the increasing stress levels as interest climbs on your debts.
4. Only take the courses you can afford. This goes back to the “don’t be in such a rush” point. If I can beat my own drum here, I only ever took two courses per term in seminary. Why? That was all I could afford. I worked 30 hours a week during the academic year and full time during the summer. I scraped and saved to pay for my classes and was only ever able to take two at a time. The result? It took me 4 years longer to do a degree that should have only taken 2 ½ years. I was also able to concentrate more on those two classes and I left school debt free.
5. Build a relationship with a church. Not everyone will be fortunate enough to have denominational backing to help pay for seminary. I think Russell Moore is correct when he suggests that churches need to do more to help future clergy prepare. But at the same time, it is unusual for a seminary grad to stay at their home church. But if you think you are called to seminary and your church is encouraging you, telling you what a wonderful minister you will make then why not ask what they can do to help. Perhaps they could pay for one or two classes a year? Perhaps there are other ways that they could support you that would help you avoid the debt trap. Lori and I were part of a wonderful church when I was in seminary and the congregation helped us both with finances and other means. They knew we weren’t going to stay, but they considered it an investment in the kingdom.
These are just a few observations. I realize that the impending debt crisis will not be solved by everyone getting a job. And the current economy only adds to it. But if you are considering seminary you might find some of my suggestions helpful. You might also learn from Brian Leport.
At the same time seminaries need to work harder to control costs. I am proud to say that Ashland Theological Seminary had a only a 2% tuition increase last year and this year we did not raise prices. We are doing what we can to solve the problem. I have had to drill some extra holes in my belt, but if it helps students to leave with less debt I am happy to do it. In the mean time, students need to think through how education is financed as they seek to fulfill their call.