In recent years, the seminary became aware that our students’ debt load was increasing, but we didn’t know the scope of the problem nor did we have personnel available to focus on the issue. Through the generosity of Lilly Foundation, Inc., we have been able to direct resources toward delving into the complex issue of student debt, and for that we are grateful.
Western Theological Seminary is one of 67 theological schools in the USA to receive $250,000 over three years from Lilly to examine and strengthen financial and educational practices with the goal of improving the economic well-being and financial literacy of future ministerial leaders.
Jeff Munroe, V.P. of Operations and Advancement, and Carla Capotosto, who has been responsible for marketing/communications efforts at WTS for the last 15 years, are heading the student debt initiative. The lessons Carla learned while navigating her own life circumstances have given her a passion to help students in this area. She and Jeff both want students to experience the freedom that comes with careful fiscal management.
Western is using the funds from Lilly to research the scope and systemic nature of student debt, provide financial counseling and economic education to our students, and explore creative partnerships with undergraduate institutions to lower the cost of a seminary education.
Already a clear picture has emerged by studying the debt loads of our last three graduating classes and our current Master of Divinity and Master of Arts students.
Consistently, one-third of students are either completely debt free or have not taken on seminary debt. This is cause to celebrate! The middle third are carrying debt that will be manageable on their expected salaries (with careful budgeting). The last third are looking like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress with huge loads on their backs, making every step difficult. We don’t know each situation, but from a distance their debt looks unmanageable and certainly like something that will affect their future home life and their ministries.
So what kind of salary can M.Div. graduates expect as they consider debt load? The starting salary including housing allowance for a first year pastor of an RCA church (with less than 250 people) begins at $42,291 in one classis and averages around $53,500 across the country. Ideally, a student without resources for additional household income would keep his or her debt under $37,000.
The sidebar to the right gives the approximate cost of seminary. It is important to note that without donors contributing to the work of the seminary and defraying the total cost of education, we would need to charge over $30,000 a year in tuition per student.
Western is also pleased to be able to offer lower tuition rates than our peer seminaries.
The issues surrounding student debt are complicated, but we are starting with some basics. In addition to helping our students become more aware of the implications of debt, we have added financial literacy training to the curriculum, starting with our junior in-residence class. The first class was held in January and covered topics such as cash flow, budgeting, insurance, investing, etc.
Other workshops are being created for middlers and seniors that focus on topics such as clergy taxes and church administration. We are also offering financial counseling to students.
The seminary is revisiting our financial aid policies, we are doubling our efforts to solicit private scholarships from donors, and other ideas are in the works.
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