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Back in 2005, the Auburn Institute published a timely report, “The Gathering Storm: The Educational Debt of Theological Students.” The warning was clear: As the cost of education increases, more students come to graduate school with undergraduate debt, and they add to that burden throughout their time at seminary, graduating with more debt than someone with a clergy salary can afford. Simple math.

In Trust has examined student debt in the past and highlighted some of the ways schools and denominations have responded to the issue. There were a few, and as the economy improves and school leaders begin to shift out of crisis mode, I expect more seminaries and theological schools will turn their attention toward rising student debt.

With that in mind, it was exciting to see an article recently posted by the Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA). David Briggs’s piece, “The High Cost of Service: Student Debt Burdens Religious Workers,” puts the spotlight once again on the issues raised in that Auburn study.

After reviewing the data, it’s hard not to ask the question: What responsibility do schools have here? Is it right to “sell” degrees to students who can’t afford them, especially when the resulting debt burdens may prevent them from entering the ministry for which they’re preparing?

One of the main ways schools have addressed the issue is by talking more with students about debt, initiating deeper discussions about budgets and postseminary economic realities. As the ARDA article mentions, other schools have taken that one step further and capped the amount of money a student can borrow. Other schools are seeking ways to lower the cost of theological education (even to the point of making it free).

The answer for most seminaries, of course, will spring from the school’s mission and the specific needs of their students. One thing seems certain, though, this isn’t something that is going to right itself. Once again, something has to change.

How is your school addressing this pressing issue?

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