Seminary Debt Findings

Work SignTwo weeks ago, 67 theological schools gathered to share information, research, and findings on student financial well-being. Their shared data covered over 17k students and represented 27 different denominations. Some of the findings were divided into “Oh Dear” moments and “Aha!” moments.

I think these findings are a huge deal. They represent a lot of what we’ve found and discussed on this blog. Here are their findings and some notes I’ve added:


The Bad News:

  1. Students can’t following same traditional pathways to occupational ministry

Denominational paths to ministry are changing. We have talked about these changing paths on this blog. In addition, financials have changed causing students to be more likely to need to work or have other financial support.

  1. Debt varies widely based on key risk indicators:
  • Marital status and Dependents
  • Gender
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Age

The financial risks are different for each of these categories of students, but the data is very clear that if a student has one or more of these ‘layers of risk’ they are far more likely to be heavily indebted. More data on that here.

  1. ‘One Size Fits All’ stewardship training doesn’t work.

There has been some research on this before, but my takeaway was students don’t change unless they have a ‘pain point’ which causes them to take action. More on that here:

  1. Students don’t feel impact of debt while they are IN school.

See this graphic:

Capture Student graph


Students don’t fully understand their current financial position or future. There is data that seems to indicate these numbers are better than they were 3 years ago, so that trend is encouraging.

  1. “There are significant psychological and cultural barriers that prevent students, seminaries, and congregations from addressing financial issues.”

There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution because the problem is so complex and each student brings a very unique combination of financial resources, acumen, and risks.

  1. Very little or no connection between tuition cost and student debt

This doesn’t seem possible (and in fact there is data that shows that as an institution raises tuition student indebtedness goes up faster than tuition inflation) but a tremendous amount of research was done between various theological institutions and there was no connection between lower cost peer institutions and students graduating with less debt. WHY this is true is of some debate.

The Good:

  1. Financial Literacy programs can work if:
    1. Required
    2. One-on-One
    3. Connected to calling (because….)

This basically shows we need to connect students with a better “Why”. Why does it matter if I graduate with less debt? How will my ministry opportunities be different if I graduate with more debt? We need to do a better job connecting debt to ‘vocation and calling’.

  1. Speed Bumps

Educating students on projected (after graduation) payments and giving them a range of incomes can help reduce overall student borrowing.

  1. Student financial health requires Institutional cultural change

Because student debt touches so many area of a Seminary (Admissions, Enrollment, Financial Aid, Advancement, etc.), it is necessary to have everybody ‘pulling the same direction’. A unified vision of graduating financially healthy students is necessary from the President on down.

  1. Financially healthier pastors are better pastors

Post-graduation research is proving what we could have already guessed, “decreasing financial debt and increasing financial literacy for future pastors increases their ability to lead well.”

  1. Partnering together to help graduate financially healthy students is good for everybody.

There are a number of interconnected parties: The student, the church body, the Seminary, and more. This ‘partnering’ can be institutional (church and seminary, or denomination) or personal (spouse, roommates, friends of the student, etc.). When everyone works together toward a common goal, their relationships actually get stronger.

  1. 75% of students borrow less than $40k in seminary education.

While the number and percentages change a little between peer organizations, this seems to be a rough reality across the board. There is quite a bit of research and data showing that we have a bifurcated student body. The majority of students are graduating with relatively healthy quantities of debt, while significant portions are graduating with levels of debt that will significantly affect their quality of life after they graduate.

This complicates potential solutions because all students aren’t facing the same challenges.


This information was helpful for me – both in confirming findings as well as helping me shape future ways of communicating to our students. Hopefully you’ve found this information helpful as well. It is the result of a huge amount of money and effort – all with the goal of graduating financially healthy students into occupational ministry.

Thanks to the Lilly Foundation. They are the drivers, both via vision and financial support, of this research and data. The Association of Theological Schools gathered much of the data and presented it.

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