Journal of Christian Ministry | Four Trends That May Portend the Future for ATS Enrollment
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Four Trends That May Portend the Future for ATS Enrollment

Four Trends That May Portend the Future for ATS Enrollment

Four Trends That May Portend the Future for ATS Enrollment:
What the Last Decade Says about the Next Decade (JCM, Vol. 6 – 2017)
Tom Tanner
Director, Accreditation and Institutional Evaluation
The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” Amidst our ever-changing times, those are encouraging words. They are attributed to Corrie ten Boom (1892-1982), author of The Hiding Place. She knew something about uncertainty as a Dutch Christian who harbored more than a hundred Jews during WWII. While our seminaries are certainly not experiencing the horrific changes of the Holocaust, we are collectively facing something of an “unknown future.”

This article highlights four enrollment trends among ATS seminaries that may portend that unknown future, plus a few more focused on the future of the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degree.

Portend itself is an interesting word. It can mean a sign of something momentous or a warning of something calamitous. We hope the former is our future.

To set the stage for these four trends, consider this: 10 years ago the “typical” ATS seminarian was a white male in his 20s pursuing an MDiv on campus. Ten years from now the “typical” ATS seminarian will likely be a person of color in his (still male) 30s or 50s pursuing an MA off-campus or online. Other than gender, our students a decade from now will not likely look like our students from a decade ago—if enrollment trends over the last decade continue (based on enrollment data reported each fall by the 270+ ATS member schools; see ATS Annual Data Tables under “Resources” on the ATS website). This article will briefly explore four of those trends and a few more focused on the DMin. It should be noted that the overall enrollment trend among seminary enrollment is downward. In fact, since 2006, total ATS enrollment has declined 11% (from 81,180 to 72,116), though last year’s enrollment showed a small increase—the first increase in ten years not due to adding new member schools. This decline mirrors a recent downward trend among many other graduate school professions (see Are master’s degrees on their way out? Alternatives grow as enrollment fades in April 13, 2015, Washington Post). Yet this overall decline masks some important trends that are worth noting for ATS seminary enrollments, since some segments are growing.

Trend #1: From younger students to older seminarians
A decade ago, the largest age demographic among ATS seminaries was under 30, constituting nearly a third of all seminarians. Since then, the 20-somethings age group has declined 12% (from 24,659 to 21,589). By contrast, over the last decade seminarians aged 50 and older have increased by nearly 6% (from 14,919 to 15,739). Current enrollment trends indicate that 50+s may surpass 20-somethings by 2020. The 30s age group has also grown over the last decade by more than 3% (from 18,724 to 19,311). The only age group other than the 20s that has not increased over the last decade are those in their 40s (down 21%, from 17,723 to 14,043). These data do not suggest any clear conclusions or certainly any clear causes, but still the overall trend is toward older seminarians. Part of that may be due to the economy since the 2008 recession. Part of that may also be due to the rapid increase in older undergraduate students during the last decade. And part of that may be due to seminaries making their programs increasingly more accessible through online and offsite programs (see Trend #4 below), which is more manageable for older students with family and career commitments who no longer need to relocate to attend seminary.