|Louis B. Weeks is president of Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The downturn in the U.S. economy in the late 1990s prompted the board of trustees at Union Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education (Union-PSCE), where I serve as president, to scrutinize the school's spending patterns. Endowment income had dipped and a number of the school's longtime donors, dealing with financial issues of their own, had cut back in their giving. As the situation continued into a second and then third year, anxiety increased within the board about the prospect of substantial reductions in staff and in support for programs.
At Union-PSCE belt-tightening led to suggestions about raising tuition. After all, trustees reasoned, students received an excellent education. Tuition at the school for all degree programs remained comparatively affordable. Why not charge more for our services? As one board member said, "We have 400 students. If we just charge $1,000 more for each, much of our deficit will disappear."
The church pays for its leadership
The tuition increase was approved, but the finance committee also asked me to prepare a paper on the historic relationship of tuition to scholarship assistance at Union-PSCE.
Digging back through catalogs and board minutes, I discovered that in the 19th century, many Union students lived with professors in the large faculty homes on the seminary campus. The seminarians exchanged chores for room and board. Students living in the dormitories were charged for firewood and meals, the costs for which were usually covered by the churches they served on Sundays.
Well into the 20th century, neither Union Seminary nor Assembly's Training School for Lay Workers (ATS), the predecessor of PSCE, charged tuition at all. Following World War II, however, student fees began to increase. The 1950 ATS catalog referred to modest fees and a service loan program, whereby loans were repaid over time in service to congregations rather than in dollars.
Old hands at Union-PSCE tell me the move toward tuition was spurred by the GI Bill, which provided subsidies for living expenses and tuition. At the same time, the seminary began to move toward a more academic model, with accrediting expectations and professors who had come out of university graduate programs.
In 1967, when I graduated from Union, annual tuition totaled $1,125 for the basic bachelor of divinity program and $100 per term for doctoral study. PSCE, the successor to ATS, which focused almost exclusively on training Christian educators, charged less than $1,000 per year. Presbyterian synods and (for PSCE) the General Assembly of the church offered service loans to offset many educational expenses.
A tacit agreement was in place between the church and its most promising potential leaders: The church would support them during their education if they were later willing to accept lower financial compensation than they might receive in other professions.
As I studied our situation, I realized that this tacit agreement had existed for much of the history of the Christian church. I even remembered some wise seminary president of times past -- Henry Van Dusen? James McCord? David Stitt? James Jones? -- telling me that Christians are willing to support people who do what needs doing for the church. True. Very true.
Every student costs money
Year after year, Bill Berry, a Presbyterian lay leader and businessman, used to make a speech, ostensibly for new trustees, but actually as a kind of covenant renewal ceremony to keep us focused on the quality of our admitted students. "Think of the church," he would say. "Will this person help the church be good in ministry?"
Berry reminded us that every student costs money. "There are no 'cash cows' in theological education," he said. "Not if you count the real, total costs -- buildings, administrative hassle, remedial instruction, and so on. Admit students who will help the church. Deny admission to all the rest. Every one costs money."
It seems to me that the cost to the church of admitting and educating people who do not offer the real promise of healthy leadership is also greater than just the money we spend to subsidize their education. We need to remember this truth when pressures to "grow numbers" are involved.
Merit scholarships are attractive to donors
For the past decade, Union-PSCE has invited our friends to provide merit scholarships, in addition to the need-based scholarship funds they have been giving for generations. The school has received more than $3 million in cash and pledges from several foundations that permit us to provide scholarships of up to $20,000 per year. These merit scholarships are renewable through the tenure of the basic degree program, mostly for young people gifted for potential pastoral leadership.
We have made the case that it takes experience to learn the arts of ministry, especially those involved in leading larger congregations, and the schools' friends have demonstrated their agreement with gifts. We have also received some merit funds to support second-career students and students who are studying to become Christian educators and teaching scholars for the church.
Other basic assumptions bear articulation
Our success at Union-PSCE in identifying the long-held assumption that in exchange for their willingness to accept the prospect of reduced pay, the church will support education for seminary students, has led us to examine other assumptions as well. We are asking questions about the role of faculty housing and the building of community, about the connections between the ways we deliver theological education and the substance of the education, and about the relationship of our graduates and their congregations to the seminary.
We have continued to raise tuition at Union-PSCE, and we keep the increases in line with the ability of the school and supporting churches to provide appropriate scholarship resources. We have challenged supporters everywhere to increase their giving. Like every seminary, Union-PSCE works hard to make ends meet.
As we try to increase our financial support, we have kept in mind the agreement between churches and students -- supporting the cost of theological education for students in return for their moving into congregational leadership, where material rewards are fewer than in other vocations. Perhaps in part because of this value, we find that a great majority of our graduates incur no educational debt at seminary, and most are soon leading and serving in local congregations.