When Cameron Tate, 23, began searching for an M.Div. program, he asked every seminary admissions officer the same question: What’s your policy on advanced standing? With two undergraduate degrees — one in theological studies and a second in pastoral ministry — “I thought certainly something would transfer,” says Tate. Based on his survey, he narrowed the field to three schools and eventually enrolled at Denver Seminary. It was a good fit for a lot of reasons, but the deal maker was the favorable response to his question about advanced standing. “I’ll be able to graduate in two-and-a-half years,” he explains. “That was a big factor.”
To attract cost-conscious students like Tate, several seminaries are creating accelerated paths to professional ministry. Some describe their offerings as dual degree opportunities; others use shorthand such as “4 + 2” or “3 + 3” (signifying the number of years spent in undergraduate and then in graduate education). At “4 + 2” schools, credits flow up from an undergraduate degree and replace credits required for a master’s degree (think: advanced standing), while at “3 + 3” schools, they flow down from a graduate degree to complete undergraduate degree requirements (think: transfer credit or a combined degree).
Institutional relationships provide the foundation
Saint Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Kansas, has been an early adopter of accelerated programs. Saint Paul uses the flow-down approach — the first year of a student’s graduate work transfers back to complete that student’s undergraduate program. The school opted for the model because of its longstanding relationships with United Methodist universities that don’t have embedded seminaries.
For example, “We created one of these programs with Kansas Wesleyan University,” says Elaine Robinson, professor of Methodist studies and Christian theology, who helped put the plan in place at Saint Paul. “Kansas Wesleyan was willing to forego the normal tuition revenue for the fourth year, which made it easy for us.”
The simple articulation agreement for transfer credit, forged in 2015, is considered the first of its kind between a United Methodist-affiliated university and a United Methodist seminary. Kansas Wesleyan students who enroll in the “3 + 3” program condense and meet all the undergraduate requirements (except total credit hours) in three years and then begin their graduate work. The fourth year becomes the final year of their undergraduate program at Kansas Wesleyan (with courses counting as elective credits) and the first year of their graduate program at Saint Paul. The two institutions share the revenue for the fourth year, an arrangement that required approval from the schools’ regional accrediting body.
“There’s a lot to think about with these programs,” cautions Robinson. Even the potential cost savings to students — always a driver in these initiatives — can be complicated. Undergraduate students may qualify for grants from the government but may be ineligible for those grants as graduate students. Another factor for seminaries to consider is that “3 + 3” students who have not completed their undergraduate degrees count toward the 15 percent of non-degreed students that graduate schools are allowed to enroll. (If a school is also accredited regionally, sometimes that allowable percentage is even lower.)
The effect on classroom dynamics is yet another issue. The condensed nature of the programs appeals to both traditional and nontraditional students, which can result in lively discussions and points of view influenced by a range in ages. Lynn Caldwell, professor of church and society at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, concedes that a classroom comprised of students of different generations and life experiences is “challenging from a pedagogical perspective, but enriching because students are learning from one another.”
Fewer dollars per student, but more students
Which approach a theological school takes — credits flowing up in a “4 + 2” program, or credits flowing down in a “3 + 3” program — is likely defined by its context. “Nondenominational schools have a tendency to use the advanced standing model because they don’t have natural collaborative partners,” says Robinson. “They can go to undergraduate universities and say ‘let your students know we will give them advanced standing for these courses.’ The catch, of course, is that the seminaries lose tuition dollars. Their hope is to get more students in exchange for this reduction in credit hours.”
Brad Widstrom, associate professor and director of Christian studies at Denver Seminary, observes that “it’s a lot easier if you’re an embedded seminary.” As the only stand-alone seminary representative on an Association of Theological Schools (ATS) committee considering guidelines for combined undergraduate–graduate programs, he’s familiar with the ways accelerated programs are unfolding on campuses across the continent. “Denver’s way of going about it is through advanced standing.” Why? Because “we can’t go to a university and say that we’d like it to give up two full semesters of billable hours.”
Instead, after painstaking research, the marketing department at Denver created information sheets that compare Denver’s graduate courses with about 50 undergraduate courses at the seminary’s feeder seminaries. These are classes for which students might be awarded advanced standing — up to 12 academic hours toward a master’s of arts degree and 19 for an M.Div., in accordance with ATS guidelines. Interested applicants can demonstrate their competencies by taking proficiency exams or having undergraduate transcripts evaluated by the seminary.
“Everything that is given up comes from our side,” says Widstrom. Not only does the school lose potential tuition income, but it also misses a formation opportunity in the classes that students bypass. “Are we compromising the integrity of the institution? That is the type of question you have to ask,” Widstrom says. To ensure that students are appropriately immersed in the seminary culture, Denver requires them to enroll in at least one New Testament and one Old Testament theology course. And, Widstrom also points out, “We only take students who haven’t lollygagged their way through their undergraduate studies. They have to have done graduate level work at the undergrad level.”
For Denver, the accelerated program is about both mission and survival. The seminary has made advanced standing available since 2013 and estimates that almost 200 students have taken advantage of it. “Every time you make a move like this, there is pushback,” says Widstrom, who acknowledges the program is a recruitment tool. “Along the way there have been deep, agonizing conversations, but we’ve had buy-in because we are called to prepare a new generation of ministers of the Gospel who need the same training and equipping that most of us on faculty received.” He says that the program is helping the seminary achieve its mission, in terms of training and equipping women and men for ministry, but quicker and with less debt.
Fast track vs. “speed”
A recent addition to the growing number of schools offering fast-track programs is Wesley Theological Seminary, which announced a “3 + 3” agreement with another United Methodist institution, Shenandoah University, just this past June. As with similar programs, the first year of graduate theological studies at Wesley is counted as the fourth year of undergraduate course work at Shenandoah. “We recognize the need to facilitate a track for people who experience a call to ministry earlier and who hope to complete their education with as little student debt as possible,” says David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley. He says the collaboration was possible because of a “high level of trust” between the two institutions and previous collaborations that paved the way.
Beth Ludlum, Wesley’s vice president for strategic initiatives, agrees. “A huge issue for graduate education as a whole right now is the question of student debt and how much debt students are racking up between undergrad and grad work,” she says. “If we can minimize the time required, that is a real service we can provide our students.”
At St. Andrew’s in Saskatoon, offering a dual degree was about answering a clear call in the market. “We had anecdotal evidence that seven to nine years of continual education was a barrier for some potential students,” says Professor Lynn Caldwell. “People were looking for programs like this.”
President McAllister-Wilson of Wesley cautions against what could become a trend in theological education to overreact to issues of convenience and accessibility without thinking about how to retain what is important. “We’re all very conscientious, but the pressure in the marketplace is high,” he warns. “You start to make a virtue out of necessity.”
But he says that’s not what his seminary is doing. “We’re just trying to make it possible for people to access the education they need. There’s a balance. We’re leaning into upholding what is essential about the M.Div.”
Although terms like “fast-track” and “accelerated” often describe these programs, “speed is not a pedagogical value,” says Professor Robinson of Saint Paul School of Theology. “Not every student who wants to go fast is a good candidate for going fast. The reason for doing this is never to make it faster. Faster is not a good rationale.”
Flexibility: The way of the future
Yet reducing student debt, bolstering institutional sustainability, and making theological education more accessible to underserved populations (who are often second-career ministry candidates) are reasonable rationales for fast-track opportunities, says Robinson. Increasingly, schools won’t have a choice about whether to offer yet another way to be flexible for students.
“What I say to people is that these combined degrees are like online education,” says Robinson. “When schools started to do online education, they had a unique and attractive path students could take. But once lots of schools started to do online education, it was no longer a competitive advantage. Instead, not having some online component became a competitive disadvantage.”
It was Denver Seminary’s competitive advantage in advanced standing that led Cameron Tate to enroll. “I was a little concerned that I would be behind other students who had to take the courses in which I was granted advanced standing,” he recalls. “But I took an intro course in thinking biblically and theologically and I realized my undergrad work had prepared me for everything Denver does in terms of how to write an exegetical paper. I felt ready after that.” Tate now keeps a list of books from the Denver classes he is not required to take. He plans to read them after graduation when he has more time.
Even if money hadn’t been an issue, Tate says he still would have opted for the accelerated path to an M.Div. degree. “I’m saving myself a year of time,” he says. “I’m getting into full-time vocational ministry a year earlier.”
Same program, different generations
Aurora Coulthard, 19, is enrolled in the dual degree program of St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. So is Debbie Hall (above), who is almost 50.
For Coulthard, the idea of earning both a bachelor’s degree and an M.Div. has strong appeal because she is absolutely certain of her calling into ministry. “I’m hoping to finish with a bachelor of theology and an M.Div. so I can become an ordained minister with the United Church of Canada,” she says. Earning a combined degree is extremely important to her. “I came in straight after high school,” she remarks. “Before this, it would have taken me eight or nine years to get what I’m now going to get in five-and-a-half years. As someone who doesn’t have the funds, it’s very useful for me.”
Hall wants to be a military chaplain. The military requires she earn both an undergraduate degree and an M.Div. She’s grateful for the fast track toward both degrees, because she’s eager to start her chaplaincy, where many of the people to whom she ministers will be the age of her seminary classmates.
Professor Lynn Caldwell says that St. Andrew’s focuses on building community and addressing the challenges of mixed generational groups — something that both older students like Hall and younger ones like Coulthard can appreciate.
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