Student loan debt is in the trillions of dollars. For the average student coming out of the average undergraduate institution, they will accrue roughly $40,000 of debt by the time they receive their diploma in the mail. And for graduate students, the cost can be higher: debts after graduation, according to Forbes, range from $60,000 to $100,000.
When we consider these costs and the long-ranging consequences of debt, it’s no wonder why men and women are hesitating to enter into careers that require a master’s degree. This, of course, poses a particular problem for denominations that require their clergy to receive an MDiv. Whether fresh out of college or looking at a second career, potential seminarians almost always carry debt into their graduate studies. The pressures of holding a job and attending classes (and writing papers and reading books) is not always a viable option for students—and even those students who can find a job rarely make enough to cover both tuition and living expenses. At Trinity School for Ministry and the North American Lutheran Seminary, for example, the average cost of a year’s tuition and living expenses is around $30,000. And that is a modest price compared to other seminaries and divinity schools. Couple this with the fact that a majority of pastors in the NALC are nearing retirement age, and there seems to be something of an insurmountable problem.
This is why the NALS, through good financial stewardship and innovative strategy, is seeking to find a solution to the problem, “so students don’t have to bear the brunt of the burden,” says the Rev. Dr. Jeffray Greene, member of the NALS Board of Regents’ Finance Committee. Since its founding in 2014, the NALS has taken proactive steps to minimize student costs. “We ask ourselves, ‘How do you make an educational institution streamlined?’” This looks like partnering with TSM to provide essential classes for our students without having to maintain a large faculty or our own facility. It also looks like developing programs in undergraduate institutions, where students can begin their graduate-level work by their sophomore year—and shave $30,000 off of their seminary degree.
“We think outside the box,” says Greene. “How do we deliver a first-class education for less cost without sacrificing its quality?” The chair of the NALS Board of Regents, Dr. M. Roy Schwarz, is uniquely qualified to answer these questions, as he pioneered long-distance learning programs for medical students in the United States and China.
Five years into the game, the NALS has “done better than we anticipated. People are truly supporting [the seminary],” says Greene. “Pastors from all over the [U.S.] and in Canada support the NALS. Ordinary congregations who believe in the value of the NALS support us.” Such help is necessary, not only for the sake of minimizing student costs—over half of our direct donations go to student scholarships—but also because a denominational seminary is an integral part of forming the church’s identity. “This is your seminary,” says Greene to the pastors and members of the NALC. “Together—” with our prayers, our donations, and our candidates—“we can make a difference.”