Over the last two decades, an enrollment trend has been changing the landscape of North American theological education. At institutions accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the number of students enrolled in professional and academic master’s degree (M.A.) programs has been increasing while the number of students enrolled in master of divinity (M.Div.) programs has been decreasing.
If this trajectory continues, the number of M.A. students will exceed the number of M.Div. students by 2021. The figure below shows headcount enrollment among all ATS schools from 1998 to 2017, with projections through 2022.
This shift is somewhat different in each ecclesial family.
- Evangelical schools. Total enrollment in evangelical theological schools grew from 38,000 in 1998 to 48,400 in 2007, when enrollment leveled off. In 2017, total enrollment in evangelical schools stood at 49,100.
However, in 1998, M.Div. students represented 40 percent of all students enrolled in evangelical schools, but this figure was down to 35 percent in 2017. In the same years, the percentage of M.A. students rose from 25 percent of all students enrolled in evangelical schools to 35 percent of all students enrolled in evangelical schools.
- Mainline Protestant schools. Total enrollment in mainline Protestant schools stood at 23,200 in 1998 and peaked at 24,000 in 2002. In 2007, mainline enrollment had dropped slightly to 22,400, but by 2017, mainline enrollment had dropped more dramatically, to 16,300. In 1998, 50 percent of all students enrolled in mainline schools were in M.Div. programs, and this percentage remained the same in 2017. Thus the decline in M.Div. enrollment has driven the decline in overall enrollment.
- Catholic and Orthodox schools. Total enrollment in Roman Catholic and Orthodox schools, taken together, rose from 7,700 in 1998 to 8,500 in 2007 and settled back to 7,500 in 2017. M.Div. students have remained a steady proportion of overall enrollment — 40 percent in 1998, and 40 percent in 2017, but the number of M.A. students has grown over the same period from 30 percent to 40 percent of all students.
Increased interest in M.A. programs (compared to the M.Div.) is reflected in data on program applications and completions as well. The number of M.A. graduates actually surpassed the number of M.Div. graduates for the first time in 2016.
These changing patterns have implications for all aspects of an institution, including student recruitment and retention, teaching, formation, fundraising, budget, and more.
ATS provides data on enrollment patterns to school representatives (usually the school president). Ten-year enrollment data on your own institution is available in the Strategic Information Report. Five-year enrollment data, with comparisons to peer schools that you select, is available in the Institutional Peer Profile Report.
Boards, senior administrators, and faculty may find it useful to think about their own school’s patterns of enrollment across the decades. Have changes in enrollment patterns been intentional? How does the trajectory of enrollment patterns portend a different future? If a theological school is being transformed, how can leaders acknowledge, embrace, and lead into the changes that are taking place?
A longer version of this article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Colloquy Online as “Master’s enrollment — a changing landscape.” It is available at bit.ly/masters_enrollment. This abridged version is used with the permission of the Association of Theological Schools.