When Christian students view college as a part of their calling, they won’t let the cost get in the way.
For some, that means doubling down on savings, hustling for scholarships, or working their way through undergrad or seminary: whatever it takes to cover rising tuition bills. Others see robust federal loan packages as a godsend, allowing them to enroll at a Christian college.
Recent student loan trends have left some Christian college grads feeling the economic impact for decades. Meanwhile, financial counselors are desperate to improve financial understanding within a system that makes lending an easy default.
“I don't feel swindled. I needed the nourishment I received from my professors and the community I found there,” said Ashley Abramson, who racked up $50,000 in private loan debt from three years at Northwestern College (now the University of Northwestern–St. Paul). “But I'm still paying the price almost 10 years later, and it's affecting my marriage and now, even my kids.”
Year after year, more Americans are getting degrees, and more of them are relying on loans to pay for them. In the US today, 44 million borrowers owe a total of $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. Students enrolled at private universities, including Christian colleges, are more likely to take out loans; three-fourths graduated with some debt last year.
Most students with loans end up with around $30,000, and the amount can be a little less at schools belonging to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), where tuition is higher on average than public institutions but lower than fellow private four-year schools.
The $30,000 amount results in monthly payments of a few hundred dollars, but the debt load can easily get out of hand due to compounding factors such as graduate school debt, spouse debt, deferment, unemployment, or low-paying ministry jobs. And things are exponentially worse for students taking out loan amounts on the higher end.
“How we'll be able to afford a house and children is something we're greatly concerned about,” said Danae Parker, who along with her husband has $129,000 in debt from Philadelphia Biblical University, now Cairn University.
Even with nearly $2,000 a month in student loan payments, the Parkers will still be paying off their undergrad education well into their 50s.
“Honestly, we frequently bemoan our choices to attend a private Christian college solely because of the financial hole it's put us in,” said Parker, who works full-time as a nanny because it pays more than writing or social work, her major. Americans with student loan debt lag behind on measures of wealth accumulation, home ownership, and general economic well-being, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center.
Yet, a strong desire to attend a Christian college can supersede financial concerns. Some parents encourage Christian education over cheaper public school options because of the value they put on faith-learning integration and an environment that upholds a Christian worldview. Or, students who come to Christ through youth ministry in high school may feel personally drawn to Christian schools, particularly those recommended by trusted church leaders.
“I didn't grow up in a Christian home, so attending Bible college felt priceless to me. I was young and stubborn and thought real Christians went to Christian college,” said Abramson, the Northwestern College grad. The school was her top pick since her youth group leader went there.
A decade later, Abramson still has $43,000 to go, and, when combined with her husband’s debt, the $1,000 a month loan payments make it harder for them to tithe, give to charity, or live out the generosity they feel God calling them to.
Last year, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) asked the leaders of major denominations and ministries: Would you encourage young people to attend a Christian college over a state school even if it meant graduating with more debt? Only about a third said yes, and over half said maybe.
Evangelicals find themselves in the tension between valuing the role of Christian higher education institutions in faith formation and education and weighing the real costs students and families take on to attend.
The issue of affordability of seminary education came up at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in June. Baptist Press reported that Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told leaders to emphasize “the value of biblically sound theological education. Free education at a liberal school, Mohler said, can ‘cost eternity.’’’ Still, Mohler has repeatedly warned students about the dangers of college debt.
Financial counselors at Christian institutions find themselves caught between theological justifications for hefty loans and the financial reality they know will hit down the line.
“It’s really difficult when you’re talking to the student saying, ‘God will provide later.’ I can’t tell them, ‘Maybe God will provide later, but are you listening to him now?’” said Stacey Glidden, director of student financial services at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
With 90 percent of Gordon-Conwell students participating in a scholarship program, including one where students raise money to supplement funding from the school, the amount who borrow money has dropped dramatically over the past five years. Fewer than 250 of its 1,800 take out loans, but many who do take out the max amount.
When schools offer students financial aid, such as the loan options available through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), there’s only so much financial counselors can do to deter them from an unsustainable amount of debt. Schools cannot deny students loans from their financial aid package, and most incoming freshmen make their initial decisions without contacting the financial aid office for counsel in the first place.
“One area where it can be challenging is the whole idea of God’s call and the cost of getting your education. As a private school, it’s great to have that Christian background, but the cost is going to be higher than at a public school,” said Debbie Bristol, who worked for 15 years as the associate director for student loans and collections at Seattle Pacific University. “If they filed for FAFSA and they’re eligible for the loan, we cannot tell them not to take the loan.”
At Gordon-Conwell, the financial services office has inserted a hurdle into the process: Any student with over $40,000 in debt must explain their financial situation in writing to a special committee, including how they plan to repay the amount.
Azusa Pacific University, a CCCU school in California, has tried to make the impact of the loans as straightforward as possible by including on their financial aid award letters a monthly payment amount as well as estimated salary figures based on the student’s major.
This is exactly the kind of information many grads wished they had when they agreed to their loans years ago—especially Christian students called to low-paying work in churches, ministries, schools, and other nonprofits.
“We need to find ways of putting financial and vocational reality in relatable perspective for young people,” said Chris Cocca, nicknamed the food truck pastor for his unique bivocational approach to paying down his costs from Yale Divinity School.
Cocca said he and his wife pay “more than a typical monthly mortgage” in loan payments. “I think the federal government made it far too easy for students to float insurmountable debt.”
Some Christian organizations offer loan forgiveness programs for missionaries on a case-by-case basis. Yet, employment at Christian institutions can also prevent them from having their debt forgiven.
Some forms of work done for Christian nonprofits (anything related to religious instruction, worship, or evangelism) makes grads ineligible for federal loan forgiveness programs available to those working in the public sector. Plus, the Trump administration has plans to do away with such programs as early as next year.
Christians who go on to graduate education often take longer to pay their debts, thanks to deferment plans, and have more costs to pay. At the same time, they are older and more experienced—especially if they are returning to school mid-career—and use more financial discretion.
“Students who have been sobered by the realities of education debt are more likely to bend over backwards to avoid incurring more,” said Carrie Graham, who directed a seminary-level financial education program called Ministers Facing Money, sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools. “Otherwise American and church culture often normalizes educational debt, putting no number on it, so without the startling effect of actual loan payments, folks often walk around thinking it is ‘normal.’”
Seminary and Christian college grad Bryan Jarrell works three jobs to manage his and his wife’s loan costs, which have whittled down from $110,000 to $58,000 over the past five years. “On this side of it, we recognize that we bear some responsibility for taking on the debt without financial literacy,” said Jarrell, who graduated from Grove City College in Pennsylvania in 2009. “On the other hand, it was way too easy to sign our futures away.”
At the same time, plenty of Christians have gone the opposite way and actively resisted taking on loans. Moody Bible Institute in Chicago doesn’t participate in federal loan programs and covers tuition for its full-time undergrad students, freeing them up financially to go into ministry work after graduation. Individual families considering college costs frequently cite biblical teachings on debt and the influence of Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey. He advocates a debt-free approach to higher ed, even if it means restricting choices to state schools and community colleges.
Lydia Hazel, a preschool teacher in Oklahoma, wished her parents or another adult would have given her more options before she took out $40,000 to attend Seattle Pacific University. “I wish they would have discussed how much cheaper public universities were,” said Hazel, who moved back in with her parents after graduation for a year to save money. “I didn't even see them as an option because they would have been a threat to my faith.”
Last week, The New York Times ran an article in its business section titled, “Does God Want You to Spend $300,000 for College?,” looking for an argument based on the Bible or the Catholic Catechism for the tuition costs at the University of Notre Dame.
“How can one justify spending (or borrowing) $10,000, $20,000 or $40,000 more per year at Notre Dame than one might at a flagship state university?” the column asked.
Christian schools are quick to defend the value of faith-based education. Houghton College president Shirley Mullen told the NAE:
While I would not encourage going into limitless debt—even for the privilege of going to a Christian college—I would definitely encourage students to be willing to incur some debt. I question the notion out there among some Christians today that all debt is equally bad. Taking out some debt for college is more like an investment in one’s future than like incurring credit debt. My point here is that faithful stewardship is more complex than simply not taking on debt.
David Dufault-Hunter, vice president for enrollment management at Azusa Pacific, voiced a similar position, citing that while more students have taken out college loans, the ratio of loans to income has remained steady. It’s worth the investment, he said, because “the value of education increases over time.”
One benefit of taking out loans at smaller Christian schools is that students can get personalized attention and financial advice—if they are willing to ask for it. Some will turn to the financial aid office when things get dire, but counselors are there on the front end too. They don’t want the loans that helped students get their education in the first place to keep them from the full lives and careers they dreamed of when they enrolled.
“It’s more than just paying back your loans,” said Bristol at Seattle Pacific. “It’s balancing that and God’s call on your life and your family.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that “most work done for Christian nonprofits … makes grads ineligible for federal loan forgiveness programs.” That statement has been revised to “some forms of work.” The enrollment figures for Gordon-Conwell have also been corrected.