Educational Debt – BS

When I initially encountered Greg Henson and David Pohlmeier’s  new infographic on what incoming seminary students bring with them, I found myself gravitating toward the financial data.  The data used to generate the graphic comes from surveys completed by 6,900 incoming students at 161 ATS schools during the 2011-2012 school year.  Among the findings:

  • 51% of all incoming students enter seminary with educational debt (the image at right shows the debt load of those who enter seminary with educational debt),
  • 1 in 10 incoming students enters seminary with educational debt exceeding $40,000, and
  • Since 2001, the percentage of students entering seminary with educational debt exceeding $25,000 has increased 143% .

So What?

While a great deal of conversation of late has focused on issues relating to the cost of seminary education, it is important that any such discussion include data about educational debt BS (Before Seminary).  When students graduate from seminary and begin earning income, increasing numbers are burdened with significant levels of debt that was incurred while attaining both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

  • How do you think the rising cost of education and increased student debt BS (Before Seminary) will impact the decisions of those who may be considering a seminary education?
  • What, if any, role should your local congregation play in educating prospective seminarians about the economic realities related to attaining a seminary education? in advocating for reform in the cost of theological education in schools affiliated with your denomination?


  1. I’ve been out of seminary about 15 years. I had about $45,000 in debt AS. A little less than 20k BS. It took about 13 years for my household to pay it off. The South Dakota Synod of the ELCA contributed about $2500 in principal when I served there. I’m glad and thankful they helped as they could. Like a lot of organizations, I think Mainline Protestant denominations misread their training and talent pool in relation to the economy and the trends of their congregations. I’m amazed we were able to escape debt when we did. We made sacrifices in our household. I can’t imagine being in the economy/religious climate as some of my colleagues who still carry mountains of debt without the prospect of making what they’re worth. it’s hard for me to believe that debt forgiveness is on the horizon, but something radically generous is necessary to free opportunities for the gifts of ministry to be unleashed. Debt is a crushing burden, and it is now as a debt free household, I feel that’s from where I’ve done my best ministry. Burden matters.

  2. Thanks for looking over the infographics, Greg. You ask some great questions here. The debt and cost realities are important issues. I believe they are deeply interconnected. I have seen debt impact the choices related to where a person serves in ministry and I have seen cost prohibit people from gaining additional ministry preparation. I think both issues can be addressed. It will take a few major changes and it will require a broader understanding of the causes of student debt.

  3. Joe and Greg, thanks for sharing some of your thoughts. I certainly agree that the next generation of clergy will face challenges in this area that are far more significant than was true in the recent past. In my own experience, I was able to avoid taking any student loans until reaching my doctoral studies. I was then able to pay those loans off within 5 years of graduation. The congregation I serve now not only helps by funding a staff seminarian, but also by supporting other seminary students.

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