Learning Journey 4 – the Biennial Meeting of the Association of Theological Schools

By Riess Potterveld

Last week at the Biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools, comparative data was presented from 1981 and 2011 (a thirty-year span).  While we have been looking carefully at this data over the past year and a half, it is worth reviewing from time to time.

The number of students in the Master of Divinity degree program across North America was: 50,559 in 1981 and is now 74,193 in 2011 – having declined for six years in a row from a high of 81,000.

During this time, the percentage of seminaries connected to colleges and universities has grown from 20% to 35% and that connection/merger strategy is increasingly (according to Daniel Aleshire, Executive Director of ATS) one of the primary means of survival.

We have also talked of student debt and the increasing burden this debt places on students. In 1981, the average cost (tuition and fees) of an M.Div. degree in North America was $6,242; today it is $44,000. However, the inflation adjusted cost in 1981 dollars would be $16,500 today. This is an indication that today’s student faces a very different reality vis-à-vis the cost of seminary education, especially when one considers that the financial resources of the middle class has eroded over these same decades.

Also prevalent was documentation of the increasing importance of extension (or satellite) campuses and on-line education during this same time period. In 1981, there were zero schools with extension sites;  today 99 different schools have extension sites.

In 1981, there were zero schools with approved comprehensive distance education programs; today there are 77 schools with at least six courses. Of these 55% represent schools classified as evangelical.

Even putting these few data together into a narrative suggests why the work of the Commission is so important.  Here is the narrative: the cost of a PSR education is above average, at a time when enrollment in the M.Div. degree is systematically declining.  We are lagging other schools in developing both extension sites and on-line educational resources, though both are major trends through the schools of the ATS.  We do not yet have a college or university interested in us, though we have opened the door an inch or two to test the waters.

Clearly, sitting still is not an option and therefore this creative undertaking to seek a way to expand and enhance our mission while achieving a sustainable model.

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