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I recall the moment it became clear to me that American Christian higher education was in trouble. It was May 2008, and I was visiting the South African Theological Seminary in Rivonia, near Johannesburg. As the website puts it, the school focuses "on equipping you for service, right where you are in your local church." To this end, it offers distance education only. This is no fly-by-night startup, but is accredited by the South African Council on Higher Education. It offers bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctorates in theology.
And at pennies on the dollar. The school intends to educate African pastors who can't afford to leave their ministries, move to greater Johannesburg, and study for two to three years. In addition, the programs have to be affordable. Affordable indeed: An M.Th. degree is a two-year program that costs $2,000 a year. At a typical American seminary, that is about the cost of two classes.
Naturally, students from the West could enroll—at a fraction of the cost of attending schools on their own continents—and still receiving a degree recognized by a national accrediting body of a developed nation.
Compare this with the situation in North America, where the cost of tuition at American colleges (public and private) rose from 23.2 percent of median annual earnings to nearly 39 percent between 2001 and 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the rise in tuition apparently is not keeping up with the cost of a traditional on-campus education. A 2012 Bain Brief study "The Financially Sustainable University" found the a third of all American colleges and universities were not sustainable. The list of financially troubled schools includes some major Christian colleges. Critics have argued that the Bain Brief is needlessly alarmist, but no one disagrees that we have a problem.
For people in the pews, many of whom are swimming in debt from their own college and seminary days ...