When Virginia Theological Seminary’s admissions director Derek Greten-Harrison looks over the incoming class, he sees a diversity of spiritual and intellectual promise. He also sees debt.
“Often our applicants look financially okay on paper,” he says, “but there are things such as student loan debt which the financial aid metrics don’t take into account.” According to Forbes, the class of 2016 graduated with an average student loan debt of $37,174. For Black students, that average is $7,400 higher. In the end, 46% of students receiving aid from VTS have a “funding gap” that traditional financial aid doesn’t fill. Greten-Harrison points out that Church Pension Group figures for the median compensation for fulltime clergy with five years’ experience or less is $61,144 for men and $60,000 for women. Thirty percent of that is often housing, leaving about $42,000 in cash stipend. “This is why it’s so important that a seminary education not add more debt,” he says.
Enter the Vocations Scholarship Fund. One of the Bicentennial initiatives funded by the sale of the Seminary’s Assyrian relief, the Vocations Scholarship Fund will provide aid for students of color, international students, and second-career students. These students are the most vulnerable to the “financial aid gap,” but Greten-Harrison points out that a rising tide of scholarship funding will lift all ships. Students tend to agree.
Kathleen Walker, a senior from Southeast Florida says that if the seminary could help her navigate her financial situation, “we can accomplish that for everyone.” She and her sister shared a house in Miami and had taken turns completing advanced degrees while parenting her sister’s two children. Walker worried how her decision might impact her sister’s family. “I had heard that if you own a home they would consider that an asset. But I couldn’t sell my home out from under my family,” she says. Plus, she had significant student loan debt from a master’s degree in public administration. The Seminary helped her put together a package that will allow her to graduate this May without having added to her existing student loans. She feels the Vocations Scholarship Fund will allow VTS the flexibility to build similar packages for students from different demographics.
Jeryl Mitchell is one of those “different demographics.” Like Kathleen, she left a successful career to attend seminary, and like Kathleen, she brings atypical family obligations. The single mother of a child with ongoing surgical needs, Mitchell attended classes at General Theological Seminary in New York, where she lived, while fulfilling Diocesan postulant requirements. She gradually switched to part-time consulting to allow time for her studies. By the time she transferred to VTS, where she “felt God wanted me to be,” her IRA was heavily depleted. “Being a full-time student has limited my opportunity to earn income to student positions, which pay the same rate as when I got my first master’s degree in 1983,”she says. Ineligible for some of the minority-focused grants such as the Bishop Payne Scholarship, she receives support from her home parish and took out a Sallie Mae loan last year. She emphasizes that she believes she’s “emptying out and entering a new way of being in Christ.” But she’s enthusiastic about how the Vocations Scholarship Fund will help second-career students maintain their retirement resources, an especially important contribution since they cannot accrue credited service after age 72. “We all come to seminary with the faith-based belief that this is where God wants us to be,” she says. “That comes with some sacrifices and some learnings.”
Stephen Shortess, a senior from Louisiana, says, “I do think VTS starts us with the expectation that we will leave here without debt” and then he runs through the financial ups and downs of seminary life: a new baby and increased healthcare costs, the lower salary of a spouse who can only give an employer three years. Still he says, “I think it’s true for everybody here that we received more than it cost us.”
While he’s clear about the importance of graduating without debt, he grows eloquent on the topic of using proceeds from the Assyrian relief for international scholarships. “This is a piece of artwork and it had its own language. It describes a culture that was flourishing during the time of the Bible. I think it’s important to think hard about who we want to honor with the scholarships. [This is] a chance to be brave, and that bravery is not necessarily looking at people in this country, but connecting us with parts of the world where we still get so much of our heritage through Scripture.” He considers aloud the prospect of funding students from other faith traditions. “What would Jesus do if he had all that money from this artifact?” he asks. “Would he give a chance to the Samaritan?”
The size of the Vocations Scholarship Fund will be finalized by the Board of Trustees when the Assyrian relief is auctioned at Christie’s in October. As a board-designated fund, the scholarship may be reviewed by the trustees and adapted to meet the changing needs of the student body. The sale of the relief will also cover the cost of maintaining a smaller pair of relief carvings from the same excavation site, which will be the subject of a scholarly symposium at VTS in 2019.