The divinity school dilemma

July 21st, 2015

Recently, I experienced a wave of frustration related to my student loan debt. This happens from time to time, and really anything can set it off. Debt is stressful, as most of us are aware. Before I dive in, though, I’ve got to say that I’m more fortunate than many; I’ve been able to steadily pay on my debt for a while now. It’s still sizable enough to haunt me, but at least it isn’t a Poltergeist-style terror. That’s not insignificant.

Nothing so far is unique. Thousands of former students are dealing with the exact same thing, though in varying levels of distress or ease. What makes it slightly different is what degree I went into debt for. I received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School. So we’re talking about 1) a graduate degree, as opposed to a bachelor’s which is widely regarded as necessary in this country to participate in the job market, and 2) a professional degree meant to lead to practical ministerial work for the social good.

Needless to say, it’s not easy to parse out what “useful” means when discussing this kind of education. I’m not a utilitarian guy by nature. John Stuart Mill makes me instinctively bristle. Always has. But that side of “useful” can’t be ignored here. However the other side of “useful,” wrapped up in the sense of communal good or intrinsic purpose (what religious folks call “calling”), can’t be ignored either.

It’s easy to say that we can’t, or shouldn’t, put a price tag on such a thing. But is it irresponsible not to try? Yes. Because if divinity programs are going to rest their hats on being prophetic, there has to be prophetic talk about economic justice for all, their own students included. They, and we, must talk openly about how the values of M. Div. and M.T.S. degrees balance against their costs. We owe it to our own tradition.

Cold Utility

I think this is the easier piece when it comes to discussing the “usefulness” of a degree, or anything. It’s easy because it’s straight-forward. You can ask questions about “monetary value” and “long-term investment” and couch such questions in "greatest possible happiness." Living in a society driven by capitalism, we have to consider how our decisions color our ability to trade our labor for the dollars needed to buy the goods and services that keep us alive (and therefore happier than were we not alive). This is also the easiest to discuss in terms of divinity degrees, because the answer is (almost) unequivocally “No. It’s not worth it.”

Going into any sizable amount of debt (the kind that takes more than a few years to pay off) for a profession focused on ministry, whether in a church setting or in the wider world, is, financially, ridiculous. Doctors may go into $200,000 worth of med school debt, but they’ve got a pretty legitimate shot of paying that off. Divinity school doesn’t offer that certainty. It’s not meant to, honestly. But that becomes a factor when we talk about the elements of a useful degree. If you’re going to spend two or three years and large stacks of cash on education, which is largely thought of as an investment (and a requirement for ordained ministry with organizations like the United Methodist Church), then you need to be clear about how the investment shakes out. Will your divinty degree earn you enough money to make taking out student loans financially sensible? Probably not.

I say this as one of the lucky few. I use my degree in my job. Without said degree, I probably wouldn’t have had the career arc I’ve had. Due to steady employment, I’ve been able to pay on my debt regularly. But non-profit work — the work commonly associated with the degree — only pays out so much, so I still have to do the real work of examining how my debt balances against the money-making potential of my education. These are uncomfortable thoughts to have, because it's complicating a calling with cost. But debt will do that.

But Hey, I Have a Vocation

Here’s where things get murky. If we’re talking financially, it’s fairly easy to say that divinity schools are irresponsibly offering degrees that won’t produce students able to pay for them. There needs to be some prophetic witness to that unfortunate fact. But that doesn’t mean the degree isn't useful, right? There are other ways something can be “useful” without supporting the definition of utility found in a consumer economy.

Divinity school programs, ideally, produce people with an enhanced understanding of the way the divine operates in our world, and how our reactions should shift to reflect that divine work. These professional degrees are meant to be attached to people committed to the ethical and spiritual betterment of our world. That’s noble work. It’s important work. It's irreplaceable work. I won’t argue otherwise.

I also won’t argue the value of my own time spent seeking an M.T.S. I think I’m a better person for the things I read, the interactions I had and the new avenues of thought I had opened to me. I gained much. I did some socially/morally/religiously important, arguably “useful,” work there. But was it worth it? That’s a harder question.

You can probably put a price on a profession. Maybe you can’t put a price on a vocation. Though you can, and should, think through whether the debt you incur to pursue your vocation keeps you from effectively living it out in the first place. Can you effectively run a homeless ministry if you can barely pay the rent? Maybe, maybe not. A key question divinity schools should be asking (though I doubt they are) is this:

“By allowing students to leave here burdened by debt, are we ensuring that their ministry is seriously hindered before it begins?”

That’s not a small question. That’s an ethical juggernaut. That’s a prophetic question.

Be Prophetic

I don’t have all the answers. Whatever the solution is, it will be nuanced and it’ll be varied depending on who you talk to. People's experiences during and after their time in the program will shed revealing light one way or another. I can see clear ways in which my degree has been both practically and personally useful. Ask an unemployed friend I graduated with, and they might have a different take. Understandably so. But this critical question shouldn’t even be generated by the future, current, or former student. Rather, this is a question for the keepers of the degrees themselves.

Vanderbilt Divinity School (VDS) calls itself “The School of the Prophets.” Other divinity schools would probably like to cast themselves in the same light. To do so, they all need to be clear about their mission and how that mission is lived through their students. This means reconciling how their students are best able to live out their ministry in post-graduate life.

To give credit where it's due, VDS works hard to keep its costs significantly lower than other professional schools at Vanderbilt (like the law, business and medical schools). The estimated tuition (before books, fees, and living expenses) for the 2015-2016 academic year at VDS is currently $20,472. Compare this to the $43,620 estimated annual tuition for undergrads, $50,900 for Vanderbilt law attendees, $45,350 for the Vanderbilt medical school and $49,950 for the business school. So clearly VDS is aware of the need for students pursuing ministry and justice work in the wider world to emerge with lower levels of debt. Still, it's a hefty price tag, even for those of us who were supplemented with scholarships. And as several of my classmates are experiencing, their expertise is simply not desired by the job market, leaving the debt to grow heavier as each unemployed or under-employed day passes.

I should also note that this isn't solely an issue for a university's divinity school. It's an issue for the university. If a university feels it's important to have a divinity program, the conversation should start there around how those students will receive an education. Should it look different from other professional schools? Even accounting for my obvious bias, I believe so. It's an issue of priority. For example, universities with divinity schools could have honest conversations about how money being funneled to high-profile sports programs could, or should, be reallocated to those seeking to use their education for the work of justice and communal flourishing. It'd be a start.

The Big Picture

If we pull back the lens even more to get the wide shot, we also have to admit that there also needs to be a hefty discussion of the way student loan debt operates in this country as a whole. I'm not trying to place all financial responsibility or blame on the divinity schools themselves, but I am saying that divinity schools especially must try to find the ethical road amidst the unethical landscape that is U.S. higher education. And even when they are taking the right steps, they should still be talking about the issue and ways to improve.

In simplistic terms, we're dealing with a three-tiered problem: how is the university prioritizing divinity education, how is the divinity school being honest with and caring for its students, and how is the federal loan system broken for all loan holders, this sub-group in particular?

It's multi-layered, which means it's messy, complicated and impossible to solve overnight. But we can begin by encouraging divinity schools to be open and honest about the real challenges associated with pursuing a degree from them. We can push universities with divinity programs to be transparent and forward-thinking about the priority of divinity education in their college system. And we can participate in and lead the call for reforms related to student loan debt held by any graduate.

But first, we divinity graduates can start by telling our stories. We can tell the truth about the pros and cons of following a call to ministry through higher education. We can be prophetic.

An earlier version of this piece was first published on Disembodied Beard.

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