Two days ago I wrote a short post titled “Seminary won’t solve all your doctrinal quagmires, but it may create some financial ones.” In this post I summarized and shared my thoughts on a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Student Loan Debt and the Future of Seminaries” written by Russell D. Moore. Today I read another article with a similar lament by David Briggs for the Huffington Post titled “Seminary Debt Rising: Clergy Postponing Starting Families, Facing Bankruptcy” which include this potent line about seminary graduates: “Now, graduates wanting to explore religious vocation may be ‘too poor to take the vow of poverty’…
The article reports that, “It is no longer unusual for seminary graduates to leave school with $70,000 to $80,000 in debt…” according to Sharon Miller, the associate director of The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary.
Apparently their study finds that in 1991 “more than half of master of divinity graduates had not borrowed for their seminary education” and when they did borrow it was within the range of “$11,000, or $14,450 when adjusted for inflation,” compared to current figures. They found that only one percent “borrowed more than $30,000.”
In 2001 the percentage of seminary graduates free of debt was about 37 percent and about twenty percent borrowed over $30,000.
In 2012 they are still collecting data on the last ten years, but it doesn’t look so good.
According to the article, “The U.S. Labor Department in 2011 estimated the median annual wage of clergy at $44,140.” But this isn’t the case for many right out of seminary.
Enough of my summarizing though. Read the article.
Personally, I am in the medium range for debt in the forty thousands. I have safeguards in place to make sure this doesn’t become a major problem, but I confess that as a seminary graduate my heart wanted to go back to San Francisco and the reason that this was not possible was not the high cost of living alone. It was the high cost of living, plus current debt, plus ambitions for doctoral work. In part, my seminary debt prevents me from going where I felt I should go to do ministry!
What advice can I give to incoming seminary students? Here are a few points:
(1) Limit your financial aid. When you fill out that FAFSA form they will tell you that the money is available, but that doesn’t mean you have to take all of it. If your M.DIV cost $45,000, consider taking no more than $23,000 is federal loans.
(2) Make sure you know what scholarships and grants are available internally and externally. Your seminary may have scholarships available. Ask about them. There may be outside aid available. Search for it. Don’t assume it doesn’t exist or that you don’t qualify. Assume there is something available.
(3) Ask about payment plans. As an enrollment counselor I have encouraged incoming students at Western Seminary to mix federal aid with whatever grants and scholarships they receive from the institution and then plan on paying a little here and there out of pocket as you go.
Western Seminary works with Sallie Mae if I am correct and what happens is they pay some upfront and the beginning of the semester that you pay back in monthly installments over the semester. Now one two credit class class would cost about $940 over four months, so you may be able to pay for no more than a class out of pocket each semester. If you are going three-quarters time (six semester hours at Western Seminary) then you are taking care of one-third of your total debt immediately. Say you get fifteen percent in grants and scholarships. You are already near the fifty percent marker and that could lower your debt to a little over $20,000 by the time you graduate.
(4) Live like a graduate student now! This is something that was mentioned in the article. If you live like a graduate student now you won’t have to live like one when you graduate…at least for not as long.
One final word: If you want to be clergy, and you know this before you choose a school at which to do your undergraduate degree, seriously consider going to a cheaper school. Consider doing the first two years at community college and staying at home with your parents. Plan ahead.