Seminaries face challenging times, with financial struggles and student debt, and real questions being about how to best prepare effective leaders to serve in religiously diverse communities. Many mainline congregations are struggling to survive — and the implications of that struggle echo through the lives of seminarians as well.
New findings from the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary add a statistical foundation to the lived experiences of many of those involved in theological education. The conclusions are mined from the new Pathways to Seminary report. This new report builds upon the research from a 2001 report — tracking enrollment and other trends at the same 205 theological schools over a 20 year period, from 1992 through 2011.
Scholars Barbara G. Wheeler and Anthony T. Ruger, in a recent article written for the magazine In Trust — a resource for leaders of theological schools — gave a glimpse into the findings of the new study.
Wheeler and Ruger write that when leaders of theological schools gather, “there is candid conversation about enrollment problems: lower student headcounts and decreasing full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment numbers, especially in longer programs like the master of divinity. At the same time, presidents and deans report some good news: Their schools are attracting excellent students, including, in some schools, a growing number of recent college graduates — a cohort that had diminished sharply since the mid-20th century. These encouraging trends suggest the future is not as bleak as straight-line enrollment trends may suggest.”
Among the points of discovery Wheeler and Ruger cite from the new study are these.
Enrollment decline. The past two decades brought enrollment growth for North American theological seminaries — growth that peaked in the mid-2000s, followed by decline. “Growth occurred when evangelical groups were expanding and becoming a majority presence within the theological school community,” Wheeler and Ruger wrote in the Spring 2013 issue of In Trust magazine. “Today, all religious groups, including evangelicals, are losing strength, and seminary enrollments track this change rather closely.”
Degree programs trends. Masters of divinity programs have lost 7.5 percent of their enrollment since 2006, the peak enrollment during this 20-year period. No degree program has gained during that time — although other masters programs have lost fewer students than the master of divinity. Enrollment in doctor of ministry programs has held fairly steady.
While enrollment in master of divinity programs has dropped over the 20 years — from 69 percent of students in 1992 to 63 percent of students in 2011 — enrollment in masters’ programs designed to prepare students for other ministries have seen a modest enrollment increase, rising from 14 percent of enrollment in 1992 to 20 percent in 2011.
Different traditions. Independent evangelical schools (those with no denominational ties) grew quickly, peaked in enrollment before 2006, and then saw enrollments decline. For Roman Catholic and evangelical schools with denominational ties, enrollment growth started later and fell off sooner. Theological schools affiliated with mainline denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), saw slow enrollment growth followed by heavy losses. Mainline independent schools started with little growth, but rebounded a bit and leveled off.
The researchers drew a number of conclusions from the enrollment patterns:
» Independent schools may have a number of advantages — including a larger pool of students from which to draw and an incentive to recruit (because they have no natural constituencies).
» Some are larger schools and have taken the lead in creating distance learning programs and adding satellite campuses — which might make it possible for students who couldn’t travel greater distances to attend seminary.
» Some of the independent mainline schools serve racial-ethnic constituencies — and the enrollment of those groups has increased even as white enrollment has declined.
Gender. Over the 20 years measured, women showed a faster increase — in 2011, there were 40 percent more women enrolled in theological schools than there had been 20 years previously, while male enrollment only increased 12 percent. After a peak around 2006, enrollment of both groups dropped off — faster for the women.
“The rapid growth no doubt incorporated the influx of women, especially older women, who came to seminary after mainline denominations began to ordain them in
significant numbers and, later, when Roman Catholic and evangelical churches and agencies opened a range of ministries to women,” the study’s authors wrote. “The sharp subsequent decline may have occurred because the backlog was used up.”
Overall, women accounted for just over about one third of the enrollment in master’s degree programs at seminaries — about 37 percent.
Age. The big growth came from younger students (age 20-29), which saw steep growth from 1997 to 2005, before dropping off, and from older students (age 50-64), enrollment of which, the authors report, “grew fast and continuously.”
Race. In the United States, the populations of people of color are increasing — “and so are the enrollments of African Americans and Hispanics in the theological schools,” Wheeler and Ruger write. “Rising black enrollments probably reflect rising expectations for ministry in black churches and a larger pool of college graduates eligible for further study, while Hispanic enrollments are no doubt bolstered by immigration and educational advances.” Asian enrollment at theological schools has held fairly steady.
Programs. Many theological schools have opened extension sites in recent years — and those sites, recognizing that some students can’t travel to participate in a residential program, experienced a bump in enrollment. A little more than half of the schools with the biggest extension enrollments fared better in enrollment trends (either by growing more or having less decline) than did schools without such programs.
Online education is “mildly associated” with less enrollment decline, the authors report.
Lessons. Wheeler and Ruger suggest that theological schools may learn valuable lessons for recruiting students by looking more closely at the experience of nondenominational evangelical schools. Lacking a “guaranteed constituency” that comes with denominational ties, those schools “attract students only if their offerings are more appealing than those of their competitors,” the authors write. “It is likely they achieve their relative enrollment success by fitting their educational programs to the needs and interests of potential students. Augmented by well-organized recruitment efforts, this is a strategy all schools can adopt.”
Another tidbit of good news: programs intended to cultivate interest in theological education among high school and college students “have contributed to the increase in younger student enrollments,” the authors write.