Theological school presidents, board members, and faculty — pay attention, be alert! There is important news — if not exactly good news. Seminary enrollment trends are on a downward slope. If your school’s numbers are going up, you’re beating the trend. If you’re sliding, you’ve got company.
This issue’s cover story is called “Sobering Figures Point to Overall Enrollment Decline.” In it, Barbara Wheeler and Tony Ruger, researchers at Auburn Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, analyze trends in seminary enrollment and raise serious questions about the long-term health of theological schools across North America. A quick perusal of the main points of the article and the revealing charts show a half-decade enrollment downturn that has affected schools across the board—large and small, independent and freestanding. Almost all institutions have been affected by this shrinking population, which has inflicted serious financial damage, eroded morale, and raised questions about the mission, purpose, and the operating and educational models of theological schools.
One of the most basic questions that board members, as well as graduates, supportive churches, and donors, should ask is “How is enrollment this year?” People inside the institution ask this question constantly. Presidents anxiously monitor the applications, admissions, and credit hours. Faculty members worry when not enough students sign up for courses. The value of Wheeler and Ruger’s article is that it offers a broader picture against which an individual institution’s numbers can be compared. They provide concrete numbers, reveal trends, and remind everyone about the reality facing theological education.
The natural follow-up question is “What are we going to do about it?” There are two dimensions to the answer.
Enrollment market or pool. What is the size of the market? Is it trending up or down? How is the market segmented, and what are the trends of the individual segments? Wheeler and Ruger’s article is helpful for anyone who wants to understand the whole enrollment market of theological education.
Market share. At most theological schools, recruiting focuses on increasing the individual school’s share of a particular section of the total market—the share containing students most likely to be interested in that school’s approach, style, or faith tradition.
But even as theological school leaders are trying to recruit students from their own section of the pool, they almost always neglect another approach: Investing their energy and resources in growing the total market and reversing its downward trends.
At the end of the article, Wheeler and Ruger point to a couple of means by which theological schools can help enlarge the whole pool:
New students. African American and Latino students are already entering seminary in growing numbers, but theological schools can encourage this trend by beefing up educational programs and resources that address their particular needs.
New programs. Where denominations and ecumenical agencies have initiated programs to help young people think about Christian ministry, their interest in theological training has grown.
If theological schools want to increase the total market, they need to continue to see recruitment in a more systemic fashion while investing in cooperative, long-term efforts to encourage younger persons to consider theological education and ministry.
Thinking strategically about enrollment is a significant challenge for every category of theological school. To be effective both in influencing the total market as well as increasing their market share will require some new, long-range thinking and planning by the board, the administration, and the faculty working together.