Education is rarely an end in itself. It is a means to an end. We receive an education because it assist us in securing a career, or it enhances the career we have chosen, or it allows us to transition from a career that is no longer fulfilling to one that might be. We don’t spend thousand of dollars for the “experience” alone because most of us don’t have money to do that. We spend the money (or we take loans) because we believe that our education will help us earn more money in the long run.
In my recent post “You’re going to be an adjunct and it’s going to be terrible.” where I lamented the terrible job market for graduates with degrees in biblical studies or adjacent fields one person commented saying, “I think one of the saddest things about our current economic situation (though it’s really true most of the time given the cost of education) is the fact that education has to be viewed as being “useful” for something.” If I am interpreting this correctly the problem being proposed is that education should be worth the cost. Whether we get a job is secondary. Our education experience is so good that every dollar spent is done so wisely. I could by food, or movie tickets, or iTunes downloads, but I chose learning. We seek education for the sake of being educated. It is the aim of liberal arts to make people better people through learning. There is no guarantee that they will be made richer at the same time.
Unfortunately the inflated cost of education make this impossible for educational institutions. I will speak to what I know. A M.DIV (the degree traditionally pursued by people who want to go into pastoral work) will cost you somewhere between $40,000-$50,000 on average. It is wonderful that people have the opportunity to learn ancient languages, study biblical literature, read the great theologians of ages past, practice the art of preaching, and so much more. The learning is worth something in itself. But at the end of the day it doesn’t make sense to learn hermeneutics and homiletics at $400-$700 a credit hour if the only job available upon graduation is one someone could have received without spending three to five years in school.
Now, if a M.DIV cost $15,000-$20,000 this may be a different story, but I don’t know of many schools/seminaries that can afford to pay the salaries of professors, administrators, maintenance, and so forth without more cash flow. Maybe institutions governed by denominations can do this? Most cannot!
But this is the thing: free education does exist. So education for the sake of education is a real possibility. There is iTunes, Academic Earth, and a host of other options to access free lectures. Now I don’t think lectures on iTunes quite match going to seminary, but the tide is turning and online educational models promise to get better and better.
There may come a day when stronger institutions offer enough great free content that they squash smaller competitors. You know, the seminary that exist because it is cheaper than others and “closer to home.” If that is all you offer then online classes are in the home and can be done for even cheaper, often free.
This is my concern: seminary and graduate school must continue to be a means of getting better employment for them to survive. I don’t know that slightly better quality and learning experiences will be enough. There must remain “worth” to earning a M.DIV over against putting on your resume that you watched a bunch of free lectures on iTunes.
Who determines whether or not traditional seminary education (and other forms of graduate studies) retains its worth? Those who hire. They are the ones who are responsible.
For instance, I know that in the field of social work there is much lament over the sad reality that the extra money you might spend on a graduate degree will result in a very small increase of wages. Why spend $30,000 to get a MA in Social Work when the person with a BA in almost anything makes only fifty cents less per hour?
Likewise, for graduates of seminary it can be quite disheartening to make $30,000 a year as an associate pastor with $450 of student loan repayment each month while someone with a high school degree makes the same wages. This is not to say that a pastor cannot do a great job with a high school degree, but you can imagine the frustration of the pastor who took the time to get a M.DIV. And this is the quagmire faced by many who want to get into ministry in our post-denominational world: there is no standard, no bar for clergy. Anyone and everyone is qualified. Read a few books. Go to a few seminars or classes. Sign a confession statement or start a church plant.
I respect the person who goes to seminary to get a MA or M.DIV knowing it is for the purpose of enhancing their ministry skills rather than for an increase in wages, but I understand why some people may not think it is worth it, especially if their church board won’t increase their wages or won’t contribute funds for more schooling. I understand why a social worker is satisfied with a BA rather than going for a MA. They don’t make very good wages as is. Why go into further debt? But churches and other institutions need to ask themselves if this is good for them in the long run? Do you want your pastors and administrators to quit working toward being better at their vocation? Do you want them to settle for a iTunes education? If not, you better be willing to finance them or offer an incoming pastor more annually if they have a M.DIV.