Each year, the Association of Theological Schools gathers information about graduating students in member institutions. According to a recent report, “In 2016, 183 institutions (67% of member schools) used the graduating student questionnaires, reaching 6,293 graduates (43%) at ATS member schools. They constituted a fairly representative cross section of member school demographics in terms of age, race/ethnicity, gender, and degrees earned.”
There were a number of interesting findings, but a significant one is that an increasing number of graduates are completing a majority of their coursework online or in other non-traditional ways. The report indicated, “The percentage of graduates who have completed a majority of their coursework in hybrid (10%) or fully online (5%) courses remains relatively small, but the numbers are rapidly increasing, while graduates completing a majority of their coursework as traditional daytime students on a main campus continues to decrease.”
The majority of respondents still did most of their coursework in traditional daytime classes but that total number has continued to decline since 2014’s report. Figures showed that the number of students taking intensive courses on the main campus, extension courses, hybrid courses (a combination of on-site and technologically enhanced classwork), and online/distance courses has continued to grow. In fact, the number taking classes in the online/distance format has more than doubled since 2014.
There are a number of reasons for this. To begin, many theological schools are trying to respond to the needs of students and offer alternatives to traditional daytime classes. These institutions realize that the expense and inconvenience of relocating to pursue a seminary degree has discouraged a number of potential students from enrolling.
If the students are mid-career people, they already have deep roots in their communities and may be involved in their churches as volunteer, bi-vocational, or full-time ministers. They don’t want to give up those responsibilities and relocate.
Even a number of young adults who have more flexibility in their lifestyles are employed during the day and prefer evening classes, weekend intensives, or online classes.
A second reason is that it is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain a bricks and mortar campus. If the seminary has a main campus, leadership wants to get the most use of the space, so classes are offered in the evenings and on weekends. On the other hand, offering more classes online expands the reach of the school beyond its geographic location, broadening its “footprint” without investment in additional physical facilities.
Such changes are a challenge not only for students but for administrators and faculty as well. Building community when students are rarely or never together in a physical setting requires rethinking not only how seminaries teach but how they develop relationships. The challenges are great but so are the rewards.