There have been many unexpected consequences of the pandemic — from continued issues surrounding supply chains to a volatile housing market. International travel understandably has been limited, but this reduction in travel also has affected the number of international students coming to the United States to attend both undergraduate and graduate programs.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that while the number of international students studying in the U.S. rebounded in 2021, it did not rebound as much as expected.
Such a reality has significant implications for seminaries and divinity schools that have struggled to attract domestic students but excelled in recent years in attracting international students. This transition has been part of a long history of growth and decline in institutions of theological higher education in the United States.
Institutions of growth and expansion
Seminaries were created to be institutions of growth and production. When Andover Theological Seminary opened its doors in 1807, the school sought to produce Christian clergy who would help settle and minister to a United States landscape that was growing. As the United States marched westward without regard for the indigenous persons who inhabited those lands, theological seminaries and divinity schools emerged to produce ministers who could keep pace with the expansion of both the country’s geography and populace.
White men continued to dominate student bodies, but slowly schools admitted women as students in specific programs tailored to specific disciplines.
During this period of geographic expansion, theological schools were committed to the training of white men. Aside from the handful of Black clergymen who trained in schools like Princeton Theological Seminary, Lane Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, the rest of the students at these schools were white men trained to help provide moral guidance for the young country.
After the Civil War, higher education in the United States began to prioritize disciplinary specialization, and seminaries and divinity schools in turn began to prioritize the professionalization of the ministerial calling. White men continued to dominate student bodies, but slowly schools admitted women as students in specific programs tailored to specific disciplines like Christian education. While some schools began to admit Black clergy, new institutions like Payne and Hood Theological Seminary also emerged to explicitly train Black clergy.
This period of unfettered growth continued well into the 1950s when it received an additional boon from the United States’ prosperity after World War II. Programs like the GI Bill helped more men go to college and, in turn, seminary or divinity school. This era would become by many estimates the high-water mark not only for church attendance and membership in the United States, but also for many of the country’s seminaries and divinity schools.
Contending with decline
By the 1960s, congregational membership began a slow decline. After expanding their campuses to accommodate large student bodies in the 1950s, many seminaries and divinity schools, according to historian Glenn Miller, began to turn their attention to attracting women and people of color into degree programs experiencing declining enrollment.
While still designed to train white men, the field of academic theology saw new expressions because of greater enrollment among women and people of color. Feminist theologies and Black Liberation theologies became cutting-edge forms of theological scholarship in the early 1970s. These new theological expressions signaled a new era within institutions of theological higher learning.
Admitting women and people of color, however, could only offset declining enrollment so much.
Admitting women and people of color, however, could only offset declining enrollment so much. Declining student bodies continued to strain the bottom line at many schools. If institutions could not attract new students, they considered the possibility of bringing back alumni.
Thus, the doctor of ministry degree was born. This new degree created opportunities for clergy to return to the classroom and work toward a more practical degree that could be completed while serving in vocational ministry. It provided clergy the opportunities to explore ideas and topics they may not have had time to squeeze in while pursuing a master’s degree. The result for many schools was an additional stream of revenue that required little, if any, additional overhead.
As congregational attendance continued to decline into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, even these changes were not always enough to help stabilize the bottom line for theological schools. Some evangelical seminaries were unwilling to open their curriculum up to women. Other schools either were unsuccessful or uninterested in attracting clergy of color.
Without any prospects of increasing domestic student enrollment, schools increasingly look to international students — especially evangelical schools.
The Association of Theological Schools, which serves as the major accrediting body for theological education in the United States and Canada, makes its data on student enrollment publicly accessible and explorable on its website. According to its reporting, since 1988 the number of “visa or nonresident” students in accredited theological schools has been on the rise. In 1988, the accrediting body documented 3,121 such students. By 2000 that number had risen to 5,803, and in 2010, the number stood at 6,550. The number of these international students crested in 2017 to more than 8,000 when the ATS welcomed a large institution into its membership.
When you examine the numbers of international students attending evangelical schools, the increase is even more striking. While the number of visa and nonresident students has increased dramatically since 1988, the number of these students pursuing master of divinity degrees has grown relatively slowly. Increasingly these students have enrolled in advanced ministerial degree programs like the doctor of ministry.
Smaller institutions with fewer than 75 students over the past 10 years have increasingly sought to attract international students. While prior to 2010 the number of visa and nonresident students studying in smaller schools in any degree program hovered around 150, in six of the past 10 years that number has been more than 300.
It remains too early to understand the immediate impact of the pandemic on international student enrollment in theological higher education, and it may be difficult to disentangle the pandemic from other forces that discourage international students from studying in the United States. International student enrollment had declined in many institutions during the previous presidential administration, which took aggressive stances to limit immigration and travel from certain parts of the world.
How international student numbers will rebound from both the decisions and stance of this past administration as well as the continuing pandemic remains to be seen.
The pandemic has disrupted the number of international students seeking theological degrees in the United States, and this adds another challenge to an already challenged system of theological higher learning.
Yes, the pandemic has disrupted the number of international students seeking theological degrees in the United States, and this adds another challenge to an already challenged system of theological higher learning.
Attracting international students, however, never addressed the root problem facing theological seminaries and divinity schools. It was one of a series of Band-Aids designed to keep schools financially viable. It allowed schools to avoid the reality that their existence was predicated on the erasure of indigenous peoples and the earliest conceptions of manifest destiny that saw white, Protestant Christianity expanding to the ends of the earth.
The realities of climate change coupled with the tragedy of the pandemic should cause all institutions of theological higher learning to pause and seriously question this narrative of growth that has guided schools for so long. There are always repercussions for attempting to reach beyond the limitations of ourselves and our recourses.
Rather than asking what it takes to attract more students, seminaries should ask what a sustainable seminary or divinity school looks like. What is a sustainable student population? How might faculty also fulfill more administrative roles?
Perhaps for some schools this includes a doctor of ministry program and perhaps for others international students will make up a large part of the student body. One thing is for certain, the institutional systems of theological higher education need to be recalibrated for a more sustainable future.
Andrew Gardner is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
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