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The high cost of service: Student debt burdens religious workers

As long as the money from federal loans rolls in, many seminarians find it hard to think ahead to how they are going to pay back their huge chunks of a national student debt tab that has reached $1 trillion.

As a result, what began as a critical problem for a small percentage of prospective clergy is reaching alarming levels, new research indicates.

National data from the The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary indicates both the number of students entering seminary with debt and the amounts they have to pay back upon entering the workforce are increasing substantially.

It is no longer unusual for seminary graduates to leave school with $70,000 to $80,000 in debt, says Sharon Miller, associate director of the center.

A separate study on the impact of educational debt on Catholic vocations showed that rising levels of student loans are forcing some religious orders to make tough choices about prospective sisters, brothers and priests.

Seven in ten religious institutes turned away at least one person because of their educational debt, according to the study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

It is not enough that growing numbers of clergy with burdensome loans report having to put off for years the ability to get married and start a family or buy a house. Or, in an increasing number of cases, face bankruptcy.

Now, graduates wanting to explore a religious vocation may be “too poor to take the vow of poverty,” the center said.

Student debt rising

Auburn researchers have noticed a disturbing trend in tracking seminary student debt in three nationwide surveys since the early 1990s, when the problem was found to be significant for just a relatively small proportion of students.

In 1991, more than half of master of divinity graduates had not borrowed for their seminary education, the study found. The average level of debt for borrowers was $11,000, or $14,450 when adjusted for inflation to comparable 2001 figures. Only 1 percent of graduates borrowed more than $30,000.

By 2001, only 37 percent of master of divinity graduates had no theological school debt. The average level of debt for borrowers was $25,000, and more than one in five graduates borrowed more than $30,000.

Data from the 2011 survey is still being analyzed, but the results indicate how extensive the issue has become, with more students borrowing and an “alarming” rise in debt levels, Miller said.

In its own ongoing study, researchers from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are also finding student debt is becoming an increasing problem at its seminaries.

It is a two-sided problem, denominational officials say, reflecting both the debt acquired to become a minister and the ability to pay it back after graduation.

And the two sides increasingly are not adding up.

Mounting financial sacrifices

Consider the plight of those choosing lives of religious service, where seven or eight years or more of secondary education is often required, and the job market in a relatively low paying profession is equally tight in the recession.

The U.S. Labor Department in 2011 estimated the median annual wage of clergy at $44,140.

And even that figure is beyond the reach of many seminary graduates, who are more likely to start at small churches or in lower-level positions if they are able to find a full-time job.

With churches cutting back and older pastors staying on longer to ride through the recession, some seminary graduates are forced to take part-time positions.

What can be done?

Religious institutions are addressing the issue on several levels, from trying to make more money available to reduce student debt to looking at ways to cut the costs of seminary education to being more accommodating to part-time students who require full-time jobs to make pursuing a graduate degree feasible.

The greatest emphasis, however, may be on financial education.

Laura Bryan, who works on financial aid issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said it is critical to help seminary students understand what it means to take on the obligation of student budget debt, from the severe consequences of defaulting on a federal loan to the personal hardships they can encounter after they graduate.

That starts with helping them set personal budgets: “Live like a graduate student while you are a graduate student so you don’t have to live like a graduate student later.”

But more stringent measures, such as a cap on seminary debt, may be required. A growing topic of discussion is whether seminaries or denominations should allow students to take on unmanageable debt, even if it means denying them admission.

Some religious groups do set limits.

The study of Catholic institutes, conducted for the National Religious Vocation Conference, found 42 percent of those surveyed take on educational debt. Of that number, six in 10 institutes limit the amount of educational debt they would assume for a candidate. The midpoint of that limit is $20,000.

In their 2005 report, “The Gathering Storm: The Educational Debt of Theological Students,” Anthony Ruger, Miller and Kim Maphis Early discuss the value of theological schools screening prospective students to determine whether they have a realistic plan for managing debt.

While such screening might exclude some students, the researchers said, they also pose the question: “Would screening the applicants help avoid train wrecks of unmanageable debt? Yes.”

Still, it is difficult for many religious institutions to say no to a vocation for financial reasons.

“We tell people it’s really too much,” Bryan said, “but we don’t stop them.”


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