An interview with Daniel O. Aleshire by Faith and Leadership Magazine, Assoc. of Theological Schools, 5/5/15.
“The professional master’s degree has been growing — a trend that’s likely to continue, says the executive director of The Association of Theological Schools in an interview reflecting on a new report on theological education.”
When The Association of Theological Schools released a report on enrollment trends over the last five years, the headline was a bit surprising. “Seminaries set six enrollment records(link is external)” was the title of the report, which went on to describe the growth trends, including a record number of professional master’s degree students. Another recent report identified 100 seminaries that have grown over the past five years(link is external) and examined the reasons why. “The trends described here suggest a brighter future for graduate theological education — six years out from the recession — than is often reported,” the enrollment report said. As executive director of ATS(link is external), Daniel O. Aleshire is in a unique position to observe and reflect on the fast-changing landscape of theological education. He spoke to Faith & Leadership about educational trends and what they mean for mainline institutions. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What do you see as the most significant bright spots? Forty percent of ATS schools have had increasing enrollment. But the primary learning is that there’s no one set of characteristics that is applicable across these growing schools. They’re growing for different reasons, so there’s not the opportunity to mimic a particular institutional behavior and expect the same institutional result by other schools. Some of the schools that were growing, for example, were candidates for accreditation. They experienced a jump in enrollment once they attained accredited status. Other schools have developed new educational programs, and it appears that increases in enrollment are directly related to either new degree programs or new patterns of educational delivery. Some schools have revamped their admissions process — the way they are posturing the school, describing its mission, focusing in on a particular constituency — and for some schools, that appears to be what contributed to their growth.
Q: Degree-seeking students have declined by 3 percent since 2009, but some numbers are rising. Talk a little bit about that. The master of divinity degree continues to be the program with the most students enrolled, but the enrollment in the M.Div. has been declining, while the enrollment in the professional master’s degrees has been increasing — in fact, increasing pretty significantly over the last several years. The professional master’s degrees in the olden days of theological education used to be a degree in religious education or a degree in church music. We now have professional master’s degrees offered in almost 250 different degree titles… There is no one of those programs that’s running away. We don’t have the numbers of enrollment by specific title, but my perception is that the primary growth has come in areas of leadership and areas of counseling, and some in areas of intercultural ministry. I think that another possible reason for this growth in professional master’s degree program enrollment has been the growth over the last 30 years of evangelical Protestant schools. Many of these schools are related to church bodies that have a more free-church pattern of polity that means there’s not an entity requiring the M.Div. ordination…