The Divinity School Dilemma

Yesterday, 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 Poltergeist-style whipping me around the room anymore. 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. programs balance against their costs. We owe it to our own tradition.

Gross, Gross 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 cold. You can ask questions about “monetary value” and “long-term investment” and couch such questions in "greatest possible happiness." Then you can throw up a little in your mouth. Still, 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 $170,000 worth of med school debt, but they’ve got a pretty legitimate shot of paying that off as long as they don’t do anything monumentally stupid. 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, both monetarily and socially, then you need to be clear about how the investment shakes out. Will your div 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. Feels icky, but it’s a large piece of this crap puzzle.

But I Have a Vocation

Here’s where things might get murky and feelings-hurty. 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. 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. Hell, I wouldn’t have met Logan, and therefore wouldn’t be writing for you right now, had I not attended VDS. So, 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?[^1] 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 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. So maybe they take on less students to ensure full financial coverage. Maybe it means something else entirely. But to avoid becoming “The School of the Profits,” they need to know what that something is.

[^1]: I realize there also needs to be a hefty discussion of the way student loan debt operates in this country happening at the same time as this one. I'm not trying to place all financial responsibility or blame on the schools, 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.