By Vicki Brown
United Methodist News Service
The 13 United Methodist theological schools have increased scholarship support for their students by nearly 10 percent to keep students on campus despite the recession – even as the seminaries have faced dwindling endowments and decreasing funds from the church.
For the 2009-2010 academic year, the theological schools awarded nearly $27.9 million in scholarships, a 9.8 percent increase from the $25.4 million awarded in 2008-2009, according to figures compiled by the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools.
School administrators said the seminaries cannot help students so much that programs are placed at risk, but they are doing what they can to ease the economic pressures on students and their families during the recession.
“We are trying to help students graduate with as little debt as possible,” said Dean Maxine Clarke Beach of the Theological School at Drew University, Madison, N.J. “We have a bigger and more deeply rooted concern for our United Methodist students, so for the past few years Drew has tried to give as much scholarship support as possible to United Methodist students.”
The Rev. Myron F. McCoy, president of Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., said faculty and staff are determined not to cut scholarship support.
“In my school’s particular case, that meant an overall reduction in staff and some scaling back of salaries,” McCoy said. The value of the endowment dipped, but the scholarship awards were about the same.
Requests for additional assistance are up 7 percent at Boston University School of Theology. About 70 percent of the petitions were from international students who were hurt by the exchange rate or had family who lost jobs and could no longer help out.
The Rev. Mary Elizabeth Moore said the school has several task forces looking for ways to save money and is setting aside funds for students with financial needs. “We haven’t had to fire people, but we haven’t been able to rehire. A lot of staff positions are permanently closed,” said Moore, the school’s dean.
Moore and other education officials also are concerned with a drop in support from the Ministerial Education Fund. The churchwide apportionment fund provides educational support for United Methodist ordained elders and deacons and assists theological schools.
“We are putting money into fund raising in case the MEF continues to go down,” she said.
In 2008, $14.6 million was distributed to the seminaries from the fund. Through June 30, 2009, $4.6 million has been sent to the 13 schools of theology, compared to $5.1 million for the same period in 2008.
The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, applauded the schools’ efforts to increase scholarship assistance in the face of their own economic struggles. She encouraged greater support for the Ministerial Education Fund.
“If we are going to attract the best leaders our churches can get, we need to be sure that those who feel God’s call can answer it, no matter what their personal financial situation is,” Moman said.
Students seek help
Misty Howick, a second-year student at Drew who has a full-tuition scholarship, said she will still graduate with about $24,000 in debt for living expenses and other costs. Howick said she is lucky that neither she nor her husband had any debt from undergraduate school.
But the 25-year-old says she has friends who decided not to go to seminary for financial reasons.
“Students who enter seminary immediately after college may have undergraduate debt that’s not paid off, they don’t have savings, and their spouse probably isn’t earning a lot of money,” Howick said.
Virginia Lee Hanna, a third-year Boston University School of Theology student who sought additional financial assistance, said her finances were hurt when her husband’s mother, who was one of her chief supporters, died suddenly last year. Coupled with that, she faced higher food, rent and utility costs. “The increased scholarship funding frees up more of my student loan to cover the cost of living,” she said.
Show me the meaning
It’s not all about the money.In a positive sign, McCoy, Beach and Moore said they have seen an increase in applications.
“The economy can cause students to put graduate programs in a delay mode, but I’ve also talked to students who wanted to teach but couldn’t get a job, so they are going ahead with seminary when they might have put it off,” Beach said.
“There’s something about the reality of a recession that people think, ‘Maybe I should do what I really want to do. Maybe it’s not all about money,’” he said.
To learn more about the 13 United Methodist theological schools, visit www.gbhem.org/education/seminaries.