National Lutheran News

How can seminary students pay their bills?

College debts, seminary debts and low starting salaries are challenges

Pastors who received their theological training at a Lutheran seminary in the 1950s can remember how much it cost them to complete the four-year course. In many cases, it was nothing — zero! The denomination’s budget picked up the cost.

Those days may be gone forever (although both ELCA and LCMS are now taking steps to help their seminary students financially, initiatives that have a ways to go in serving all students needing help).

Metro Lutheran queried over a dozen financial aid officers at Lutheran seminaries across the spectrum — from ELCA to ELS. Officials at two schools took the time to respond by press time.

We heard from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the larger of the two theological training schools in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and also from Gettysburg Seminary, the oldest divinity school of the eight currently supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

It seems fair to assume that Concordia and Gettys-burg are representative of what’s going on elsewhere in their denominations and, one might assume, in other Lutheran church bodies. The picture one gets from these two schools is cautionary.

Kerry Hallahan, director of financial aid at Concordia, told Metro Lutheran that first-year students arriving on campus will typically bring with them a debt load, accumulated from college study, in the neighborhood of $16,640. According to John Spangler, Hallahan’s counterpart at Gettysburg, student debt runs in the $13,400 range. But, cautions Spang-ler, “Averages are deceptive, because almost every student is either above or below the ‘average amount.’”

It seems clear that our seminaries are losing some good ministry candidates because the financial challenges are simply too daunting. Adding seminary debt to unpaid college loans and then facing modest salaries in first-call parishes can scare away the most idealistic student.

Both officers told Metro Lutheran that they see evidence some potential students have decided not to enroll because of debt issues.

According to Hallahan, the seminary sometimes asks potential students “to wait a year or so, to work on lowering existing debt.” Spangler says students looking at Gettysburg have told the Admissions Office they were self-delaying to pay down debt; or, their Candidacy Committee may have counseled them to hold off for the same reason.

Every student at Gettys-burg is currently receiving some form of financial aid. At Concordia, 99% are getting some sort of help.

Hallahan says it could take from 10-25 years to pay off loans once a seminary student is finished with studies.

How much are seminary students paying these days for a year of school? At Gettysburg it can be as “low” as $17,830. But, Spangler explains, “if one factors in other
cost-of-living expenses, the cost could total slightly over $30,000.” At Concor-dia the comprehensive cost is now $28,441 (health insurance is extra).

So what’s a prospective seminary student to do? And how do the seminaries see the situation changing — for better or worse?

Concordia’s Hallahan says, “The seminary and the church at large are concerned about overall debt for a student. We are hopeful that [the situation] will get better.”

Gettysburg’s Spangler says rising tuition costs will be offset if the school can build its endowment significantly, providing more scholarship assistance