Thursday, August 8, 2013

Counting the Costs

A group of college students came over to my house for dinner on Sunday night.  This was one of the last church events for students who are soon heading off to institutions of higher learning.  For many of these young people, the decision to attend college is a foregone conclusion...merely the obvious next step in their journey toward becoming productive members of society.  Most of them will receive financial support for their education, but almost all of them will graduate with much larger debt than their parents.  

It's no secret that the cost of education is more expensive for this generation than for previous generations.  We know that the rate of inflation is much more gradual than the rate of increases for colleges.  For example, the minimum wage in 1983 was $3.35/hour and the average college tuition was just under $1,800.  Today, the minimum wage is $7.25 and the average cost for tuition is just over $12,000.

For a student to "work their way through college" in 1983, they would need to crank out about 530 hours flipping burgers or stocking shelves each year.  A 40 hour work week in the summer months would nearly cover the total cost of tuition without any need for scholarships, financial aid, work study, or parental assistance.  Students today face a different reality.  A young person needs to work 2,480 minimum wage hours to pay for tuition; 4.5 times as many hours as their counterparts in the early 1980's.  

This extends to the church world as well.  In order for someone to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that person needs to receive a Masters of Divinity through a seminary, which is typically a four-year process.  Yesterday, Bishop Michael Rinehart posted these numbers on the ELCA Facebook page:
Factoid: Full-time tuition for a masters degree student this academic year at Luther [Seminary] was $15,000. Single students pay nearly $32,870 annually when tuition, room, board, books, insurance and other educational expenses are added together. 69% of seminary graduates have educational loans, averaging over $42,279.

The minimum base salary for a pastor in the Southeastern Iowa Synod is $33,625 (each synod has a slightly different number)...and the average seminary graduate carries $42,279 in educational loans.  Something is out of balance in this scenario.

I wonder if this entire education/seminary/ordination system is reaching the breaking point, if for no other reason than the financial burden it places on its pastors.  If we (the church) don't feel the need to change things, how much greater does this disparity need to be until the whole thing implodes?   I see and hear a lot of hand-wringing among seminary faculty, synod staff, clergy, and lay leaders about the cost of ordination, but all of us are short on realistic solutions to this growing problem.

Maybe there's a koinonia reader out there who is inspired to offer their suggestions.  Feel free to weigh in on the comments section or through Facebook/Twitter, if you prefer.