FACT 1: Total enrollment at Canadian and American seminaries has increased modestly since 2016 following a steady decline since 2007, according to Tom Tanner, director of accreditation for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).

FACT 2: The number of seminary extension sites declined from 239 in the fall of 2015 to 176 in the fall of 2018. Student enrollment at extension sites declined from 11,100 to 5,551 students during the same period — a 50 percent decline.

FACT 3: During the same period, the number of schools offering online degree programs increased by 94 percent, from 80 to 155. The number of students enrolled in online degree programs at ATS schools increased more than 230 percent, from approximately 11,000 to 26,000.

QUESTION: Are online degree programs slowly eliminating the need for extension sites (variously called regional sites, branch campuses, and satellite campuses, among other names)? The consensus seems to be “somewhat.” Nevertheless, administrators say there will always be students who want to learn in a physical classroom.

It’s not an either/or question.

"We find the majority of students don’t choose one option to the exclusion of the other. They look at their local campus and the online program as alternatives. They mix and match. It’s difficult to talk about the online student versus the on-campus student these days because most of our students do a little bit of both,” says Michael Martin, vice president for academic services at Gateway Seminary in Ontario, California.

“A lot of people are signing up to sit in a physical classroom,” Martin says. “They want to learn that way. I don’t expect that online education will ever entirely replace face-to-face education.” He says 30 percent to 40 percent of full-time equivalent (FTE) students are shifting to an online program when it’s available. “But that still leaves 60 percent to 65 percent of students wanting to attend a physical classroom.”

“The lines are getting really blurry between on-campus, off-campus, and online students,” says Tom Tanner of ATS.

Low costs enable extension sites to thrive

Two years ago, Gateway Seminary, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, sold its campus in the Bay Area and moved to Southern California. The seminary kept its regional campuses in Fremont, California; Vancouver, Washington; Centennial, Colorado; and Scottsdale, Arizona. Only the Brea, California, campus eventually closed, where enrollment declined dramatically because it was just 30 miles from the new main campus.

One reason that Gateway has been able to keep its regional sites open is that they share facilities with state Baptist conventions and have very little facility costs. “You can actually survive with a program with about 75 headcount or 50 FTE students if you’re not paying facility costs,” says Martin.

Maintaining mission and brand

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has campuses in Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Jacksonville, Florida, in addition to its main residential campus in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. President Dennis Hollinger says their largest enrollment decline has occurred on the main campus. He attributes this to demographic issues faced by many seminaries.

Hollinger notes that the number of students on all campuses who are “fully online” has increased from 62 to 81 in the last five years. The seminary’s headcount enrollment has remained stable in Boston and Jacksonville, and declined by about 7 percent in Charlotte, which he attributes to “more new seminaries in the area and perhaps a market saturation.” Hollinger regularly visits the regional campuses and says his biggest challenge is maintaining the seminary’s clear central mission and brand. “We have to keep an overarching brand that is first of all ‘Gordon-Conwell’ and second of all ‘Gordon-Conwell Charlotte’ — or Boston or Jacksonville.”

Asynchronous vs. synchronous

Last year Fuller Theological Seminary announced plans to sell its Pasadena, California, campus and build a new one 30 miles east in the city of Pomona. In September 2019, the seminary will close regional campuses in Menlo Park, California; Seattle; and Orange County, California, and eliminate all but one degree program at their Phoenix campus.

Mari Clements, Fuller’s provost, emphasizes that they “are still deeply committed to traditional classroom programs as well as online instruction.” But Clements says that “with the advent and improvement of online education, we were beginning to see enrollment in our regional campuses decline.”

Online courses at most seminaries have been asynchronous, where students do assignments, watch videos, and take tests at their own pace. But new classroom software allows synchronous classes in real time. “Our challenge is finding a synchronous time that works in all of our locations,” Clements says. “We have students in every U.S. time zone and some in the Pacific Rim, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Coming up with the right time to offer a synchronous course is a challenge.”

Online vs. in person

Many academic studies conclude there’s no significant difference between the quality of learning in physical classrooms and online courses, Clements says. “There’s an entire website that catalogs these studies. It’s called www.nosignificantdifference.org because there really isn’t a significant difference.” She read a paper from a faculty member who initially opposed online education because he thought it was dumbing down a degree. “This professor felt he was a great on-the-ground teacher and that in any given classroom, 70 percent of his students were engaging in a high level of discussion. Then he taught his first online class and realized that the 30 percent of the students he had been missing really had something important to say as well.”

Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger agrees that there is no significant difference in learning outcomes. “But my and our board’s feeling is that those who are preparing for ministry still need to have some person-to-person interaction because that’s the nature of ministry,” he says. “How you read body language or how you discern interaction among people is highly personal in nature. Students can do between half and two-thirds of our ministry degrees online, but face-to-face experience on one of our campuses is still required, though often in a concentrated time frame.”

Preference for physical vs. online classes differs by ethnic population, says Hollinger. “We have about 130 students in our Hispanic ministries program in various locations, and they are saying, ‘We like to be together in a physical classroom.’ The number of Hispanic ministry students who are fully online is miniscule.” He adds that feedback from the African-American community also indicates a desire for face-to-face interaction.

ATS is redeveloping its accreditation standards and procedures, which will be its third major revision since they were first implemented in 1938. Tom Tanner reports that the new standards will “provide our increasingly diverse member schools the flexibility they need to offer education in their own contexts.” He says that the revised standards may indeed be modality neutral. “In the past, our standards have had a default preference for residential education,” says Tanner, but “many of our members are saying that’s no longer their main modality.”

While many demographic variables affect the growth of online education vs. classrooms, theological education will never be the same. “If we rolled back the clock 20 years, nobody could imagine the technological innovations that we have,” says Mari Clements of Fuller. “Higher education hasn’t had much of a disruption in centuries, so we are in the midst of one.”

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