Asbury receives grant to examine burden of student debt

Grant aims at finding ways to reduce burden

gkocher1@herald-leader.comNovember 30, 2012 

Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore has received nearly $250,000 to examine what it can do to lessen the burden of student debt on future ministers and pastoral leaders.

The seminary was awarded a $249,741 grant by Lilly Endowment Inc., the Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation, the seminary said in a news release on Monday.

The grant will fund a three-year pilot program. Asbury was one of 16 seminaries awarded such grants but not all 16 have been publicly announced, the endowment said Monday.

The Lilly initiative hopes to enable seminaries to be proactive in addressing the economic challenges facing future ministers. That includes developing programs, courses and practices that better prepare future ministers for their roles as leaders and managers of personal, family and congregational finances.

Rising student debt among seminarians is a national problem. The number of students entering a seminary with debt and the amounts they have to repay upon entering the work force are increasing substantially, according to The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.

The debt of Asbury seminary alumni ranges between $40,000 and $60,000, said Jo Brosius, director of communications for the Wilmore graduate school of theology. Debt in excess of $30,000 is now common for seminary graduates, and some students graduate with loans in excess of $100,000, according to the The Center for the Study of Theological Education.

Meanwhile, the median annual wage of a clergy member is $44,000, according to 2011 statistics by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The money from Lilly will allow Asbury to understand these issues affecting students and alumni. Brosius said the school plans to survey current students and alumni about the debt they face. The parameters of that survey have not been finalized, she said.

The seminary will also explore how it can reduce costs and expand "dual enrollment relationships" with undergraduate institutions. The seminary will look at "other models for combining online and residential programs," Brosius said.

In addition, Asbury will explore ways to offer faster degree completion. Summer sessions have been offered by the seminary to get students out of school and into ministry more quickly.

Asbury also plans to "create an informed financial literacy program to prepare and educate these future ministers on how to handle the debt they will leave with," Brosius said.

"We're looking at a number of different things ... that will reduce the overall cost, how we can partner with institutions to also help reduce cost," Brosius said.

Asbury will hire a project manager to implement a six-point plan that includes the items mentioned above.

The seminary had already been proactive before receiving this grant. For example, some rental income from the seminary's new housing — built debt-free and offered to students at below-market rates — goes toward student scholarships to defer some of the cost of their education.

This was not the first grant from Lilly Endowment to the seminary. For example, in 2003, Asbury received $2 million from the endowment to promote pastoral excellence.

The seminary has an enrollment of nearly 1,600 students at its Wilmore and Florida campuses and its on-line program. The students represent 91 denominations and 44 countries.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader

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