Church and economics, part one

It used to be that when times were hard, people turned to God, or at least went to seminary. Not this time. The Christian Century says that both mainline and evangelical Protestant seminaries have not seen the same bounce in enrollment that they saw in past economic downturns.

The notion that enrollments at theological schools rise in tough economic times did not hold true for Protestant and Catholic seminaries in North America this academic year. In fact, over the past three years, the total student population slipped about 6 percent—down to 75,500 from a three-year plateau in mid-decade when more than 80,000 students were studying theology.

“The idea of going back to school seems to have worked for U.S. education in general,” said Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, but not for seminaries, whose enrollment slid again in the past year about 2 percent, according to ATS data released in April.

Mainline Protestant schools have seen enrollments rise and fall over the past decade. Between the fall of 2000, when student bodies totaled 22,651, and last fall, when they had 22,068, mainline seminaries had peak years of 24,133 in 2002 and 24,024 in 2005.

Extension programs and on-line courses may be drawing enrollment away from traditional seminaries. It also appears that people are gravitating towards larger-enrollment schools and away from small enrollment institutions.

One statistical trend shown in new ATS figures is that large schools are enrolling a higher percentage of students. About 30 seminaries with at least 500 students—12 percent of ATS schools—account for half of the 75,500 seminarians. In 2001, schools exceeding 500 students accounted for 47 percent.

Evangelical seminaries have grown larger in size and more numerous in the past decade, according to Eliza Smith Brown, director of communications for ATS. They now have more than twice the enrollment of seminaries with mainline Protestant ties.

The 13 largest schools (with enrollments above 1,000) are all known for their theologically conservative perspective. The largest is Fuller Theological Seminary (4,038), followed by two Southern Baptist schools—Southwestern in Fort Worth, Texas (2,591), and Southern Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky (2,585). Dallas Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary are fourth and fifth largest in size at 1,974 and 1,892 students respectively.

Time to completion is also an issue, especially if the student cannot afford to study full-time in a residential setting.

“We have schools deeply divided on this. We’ve got schools that think that we’ve got to have more course work, not less, and it’s got to be all residency,” Aleshire said. “But others are committed to make it with shorter duration and [through more] options than [are] currently available.”

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