If you are a leader in theological education, you are already familiar with overall trends in seminary enrollment. Usually, reports about enrollment are gloomy, with a half-hearted silver lining that suggests, “Well, at least we’re not the only ones struggling.”
In 2013, In Trust recapped a report called “Theological Student Enrollment,” published by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education. The full report is available on the Auburn website. Authors Barbara Wheeler, Anthony Ruger, and Sharon Miller found that from 1992 to 2004, enrollment increased about one percent a year then began to decrease at about the same rate of one percent through 2011.
Like the flu, declining enrollment hurts the weakest among us. The “big players” struggle, but smaller schools — those with no endowments, newer schools still finding their feet, and older institutions with years of deferred maintenance — have suffered the most. Schools have sold off property, merged with other seminaries, or embedded themselves in larger institutions. The number of full-time faculty has been cut. And some schools have closed their doors altogether.
It can be exhausting to keep up with all that’s going on, because while knowing what is happening in the greater context of North American theological education is important, it does little to change the fact that you need 12 more students in the fall.
Recognizing what is happening on a larger scale has forced many schools to think about what they do at a fundamental level. And that kind of thinking leads to important questions. Is there another way to deliver theological education? What does pursuing our mission look like next year? Five years from now? Fifty years from now? How do we engage the church now to be sure we are forming the leaders the church needs and wants later?
In the meantime, the news from the enrollment gurus is not all bad. For a more upbeat report, check out this story from the Association of Theological Schools on the 2016-2017 academic year: “New Data Reveal Stable Enrollment but Shifting Trends at ATS Member Schools.”