The FTE Guide to Theological Education: Chapter 5
Theological education is among the most affordable professional degree programs. Still, the cost is significant and it is likely that you will not be able to pay for your entire theological education on your own. In this section, we give you a sense of what you can expect to pay and suggest resources for creating a financial plan for your theological education.
Tuition, Fees & Books
According to ATS, the median tuition for a master’s level programs in 2006-7 was $11,160 per year for theological schools in the U.S. and $5,471 per year for schools in Canada. Schools typically increase tuition 3-5% each year, so median tuition rates for the current school year will be slightly higher.
Keep in mind, however, that these figures represent a mid-range of tuition rates. Actual tuition rates vary widely among schools. You will find tuition rates as low as $9,000 per year and as high as $17,000 per year based on factors such as size of school and whether a school is university-based or independent.
In addition to tuition, you will pay additional student fees but these are generally no more than a few hundred dollars. Books, however, represent a very significant expense each year, costing as much as $600 to $900 per semester
As you consider the cost of theological education, recognize that your living expenses during the school year will constitute the largest part of the financial burden of attending school.
Living expenses include the cost of housing, food, transportation, insurance, childcare, clothing and everything else necessary for your health and well being as a student.
Your living expenses will be unique to your particular circumstances, but the admissions or financial aid office should be able to provide information to help you estimate annual living expenses while you are in school. They may even be able to provide you with a sample student budget as a starting point.
Before you search for external sources of financial aid, create an inventory of the personal resources that you can contribute toward the cost of your theological education.
If you are currently working, look at what you have in savings and how much more you may be able to save before beginning your degree program. If you have little or no savings, it may be wise to postpone school until you have set aside several thousand dollars. This will decrease your dependence on student loans for financing your education.
Consider also how much you may be able to work while you are in school. Most schools offer work-study opportunities that help students defray tuition and living expenses. These jobs, however, are typically low wage campus positions. If you have previous work experience or marketable skills, you may be able to find part-time work off-campus that pays more. Also, once you are into your second or third year, you may be able to find a part-time paid position on a church staff.
If you are married, your spouse may be able to support the household financially while you are in school. Married students benefit from sharing certain fixed expenses like rent and utilities but they pay more in variable expenses like food, health insurance and clothing.
Finally, as you inventory your personal contributions, you should also factor in any current debt such as previous student loans or unpaid credit card balances. If this financial liability is significant, you should consider postponing enrollment in theological education until you have paid down your debt load.
Contributions from Others
In addition to your own personal resources, there may be other people who are willing to provide financial support for your theological education.
If you have friends, family members or mentors who have played key roles in your decision to attend seminary, ask if they are willing to make modest gifts to support you. It may be easier to talk with them about a particular need rather than an amount of money. For example, you might ask if they are willing to help pay for books, your cell phone bill or your monthly utilities.
Also, do not hesitate to ask your home congregation for support. Some congregations have scholarship funds specifically for members who are preparing for ordained ministry. Even if your congregation does not offer scholarships, they do have a stake in nurturing future leaders for the church and may be able to provide some form of support for your theological education. To initiate this possibility, set an appointment with your pastor, priest or minister. Let him or her know about your plans to attend theological school and ask if the congregation is able to offer financial support. There is no guarantee that your congregation will be able or willing to assist you but the only way to find out is to ask.
If you do receive financial support from family, friends or your home congregation, be sure to express your gratitude in concrete ways. One idea is to send your supporters a periodic update in the form of a letter or email once you are in school. Let them know what you are learning and how the experience is shaping you for leadership in the church and the world.
Good Financial Habits
Whether your personal resources are scant or substantial, you can make a significant contribution toward the cost of your theological education by preparing to live frugally.
Living well on less income is an art and it takes some practice. While you are researching schools and preparing your applications, experiment with creative ways to cut back on your monthly expenses. It is also important to develop the discipline of monthly budgeting. Together, these habits not only will prepare you to be a frugal student but also will help you set aside more money in savings.
When you are a student with little money, it’s tempting to think that budgeting is only for people with jobs and regular income. The less you have, though, the more essential it is to budget wisely.
Here’s an example that might illustrate this point:
As a student you might have an occasional latte at the local coffee shop. A medium latte costs $3.50 and you stop at the coffee shop about four times each week. In the course of a month, you might buy 18 lattes. Over the course of a nine-month school year, then, you would spend $567 on lattes. When you budget, you are more aware of where your money goes and can make decisions accordingly.
For guidance on creating and using a monthly budget, try “Family Budget Workbook: Gaining Control of Your Personal Finances” or “Family Financial Workbook” both by Larry Burkett.
Most students receive some form of financial assistance to defray the costs of their theological education.
Financial Aid from Your School
Theological schools vary greatly in the amount of financial aid they are able to provide. At one school the majority of students may receive scholarships and grants equal to or greater than the cost of tuition. Another school may offer only a small handful of full tuition scholarships, reserved for their most competitive merit-based awards.
Your school, regardless of its capacity, will be the primary source both of financial aid and of information on other sources of financial aid.
For these reasons, it is important to ask about financial aid as soon as you begin exploring a particular school. Printed materials or online information may be useful but it is important to talk directly to a financial aid officer at the school. The more they know about your particular needs and circumstances the more helpful they can be. You also will want a personal contact as you work through applications and eligibility processes.
When you talk to the financial aid office at a prospective school, make sure to ask these questions:
- What scholarships, fellowships and grants am I eligible for?
- What do I need to do to apply or be considered for these awards?
- What are the application deadlines for financial aid forms and applications?
- Where can I find information about scholarships and grants from other sources?
- What work-study opportunities am I eligible for?
- What kind of loans am I eligible for and how do I apply?
At most schools, there are two basic types of scholarship: need-based and merit-based.
A need-based scholarship is awarded on the basis of the gap between what the degree program costs and what the student can afford. This gap is determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a federal form that you will need to complete before you are eligible for need-based assistance. Some schools also may require you to complete an additional financial aid form generated by the school.
Merit-based scholarships, sometimes called fellowships, are competitive awards given to students who meet certain criteria such as high undergraduate G.P.A., excellence in leadership or interest in a particular field of ministry. These awards are often determined by selection committees who review additional materials submitted by candidates such as transcripts, writing samples and letters of recommendation.
For both need-based and merit-based financial aid, it is essential that you apply early in the year. While most schools have a rolling deadline for admissions that allows students to apply as late as June or July, financial aid decisions are usually made early, and the larger awards generally go to those who apply by the first application deadline, which may be as soon as February 1.
Most schools reserve the majority of their financial aid resources for first-year students entering full-time in fall term. If you are considering part-time enrollment or entering as a first-year student during winter or spring term, you will find much less financial aid available.
Financial Aid from Your Denomination
After your school, your denomination will be the next best source of financial aid. At all levels – local, regional and national – denominational offices maintain scholarship funds and grant programs for students who are preparing for ministry and leadership within the denomination. In some cases, large congregations also have scholarship funds available to students within their tradition who are not also members of the congregation.
If you are attending a theological school within your denomination, the school’s financial aid office should have full information on scholarships and other financial aid available from your denomination. You may even be able to apply for denominational aid through the school’s application process.
Still, it pays to do your own research. It is unlikely that you will find a single, comprehensive list of what is available from denominational sources, so inquire separately with denominational offices at each level, depending on how your denomination is organized. If you are unfamiliar with the organizational structure, ask your pastor or another leader in your church to help you find the right point of contact.
Other Sources of Financial Aid
There are sources of financial aid outside of your school and your denomination for students studying religion and the humanities in general, but discovering them will require additional research and effort on your part.
Numerous online search resources are available, including popular sites like www.finaid.org and www.fastweb.com that allow you to establish a profile and search through thousands of scholarship sources for possible profile matches. These sites also offer good information on popular scholarship scams.
The Fund for Theological Education (FTE) maintains an online directory of scholarships and fellowships at www.thefund.org/fundfinder specifically for students pursuing theological education.
Keep in mind, however, that grants from these other sources will most likely be small and their eligibility criteria may be very specific.
The Fund for Theological Education also offers two fellowship programs for Master of Divinity students age 35 or younger. For more information, visit Support for Seminary Students.
The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary reports that among seminary graduates in 2001, 63% took on some amount of debt to pay for their theological education. Of that group, 48% borrowed $10,000 or more.
It is very likely, then, that student loans will be a part of your strategy to pay for theological education.
Taking on educational debt, however, involves significant risk, especially if you do not consider the final cost of repayment in comparison to what you will likely earn in the future. Furthermore, theological education is preparing you for professions that generally do not offer high salaries or earnings that will allow you to pay off large student debts quickly.
It is possible, though, to get through seminary with manageable levels of debt, if you are thoughtful and deliberate in your financial choices.
The financial aid office at your school will provide you with information and applications for the student loans that you may be eligible for and may also offer general guidance on selecting the right loan programs. It is also important to ask the financial aid office what is the average debt amount for students graduating from the school. This will give you a clearer idea of what to expect in student debt and a target for limiting your personal debt load.
Most schools, though, are not equipped to offer students personal guidance and counseling on student loan decisions. There is, however, an excellent online resource from Auburn Theological Seminary that will help you consider your options in a careful and systematic way.
This Auburn guide offers helpful insight on student debt and its impact on your life and profession beyond graduation.
We strongly recommend that you work through the Auburn guide before you apply for any student loans.
Finally, keep this simple guideline in mind: borrow only what you absolutely need and can afford to repay.
Research on debt from theological education shows that students who create a financial plan for their seminary years have lower levels of educational debt and less financial stress than students who do not plan ahead.
To create a financial plan, you will need to assemble all of your expenses and resources into a comprehensive picture of what your degree will cost and how you will pay for it.
This is a daunting task. Fortunately, How To Keep From Mortgaging Your Future also includes a step-by-step guide for creating a financial plan.
Download 2010 FTE Guide to Theological Educaiton