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Enrollment Declines and Shifts Continue at Evangelical Seminaries

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North America’s 280 Christian seminaries enrolled 78,000 students this fall, about 600 fewer than last year. Declines were among evangelical (-3.2%) and mainline Protestant (-5.9%) schools  while Roman Catholic and Orthodox schools, which educate fewer students, saw growth of 2.6%.

Online seminary classes continue to be a powerful draw for students, many of whom study part time. The growing menu of Master’s degree options continues to attract a more diverse and older student body.

While COVID had little impact on the number of students enrolled, it did shift significant numbers into online classes, leading to a one-year enrollment increase in 2020.

But at some schools, enrollment declines have worsened financial pressures, leading to cuts in budgets, faculty numbers, course offerings, and/or physical campuses.

“COVID impacted how schools changed their educational structures and paradigms,” said Chris Meinzer, the COO of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), who guided MinistryWatch through its nearly 100-page collection of Annual Data Tables and its Data Visualization offerings.

“In my opinion, schools need to look at what God is doing in the lives of students, what the missions are that students are being called to, and figure out how they can come alongside to support that calling.”

According to ATS, these are the 25 largest seminaries in North America based on fall 2022 enrollments:


Liberty University John W. Rawlings School     of Divinity 5,723
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 3,499
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary 2,533
Dallas Theological Seminary 2,523
Fuller Theological Seminary 2,498
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary 2,331
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary 2,246
Asbury Theological Seminary 1,689
Gateway Seminary 1,585
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary 1,442
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary 1,380
Talbot School of Theology 1,180
Reformed Theological Seminary 1,173
Regent University School of Divinity 1,089
Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary 962
Denver Seminary 891
Westminster Theological Seminary 889
Tyndale Seminary 853
Western Seminary 848
Kairos University 703
Moody Theological Seminary 702
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School 669
Covenant Theological Seminary 637
Duke University Divinity School 619
Concordia Seminary (MO) 603


Continuing shifts

Four decades ago, the typical seminary student was a mainline Protestant male who committed to living on campus for three years to earn an M. Div. degree and become a pastor.

But today’s seminary student is more likely an evangelical—possibly a woman, or possibly exploring a second career—who is pursuing an M.A. degree in a ministry specialty, possibly studying virtually and/or part time.

Currently, about one-third of seminary students are pursuing M. Div. degrees, but their numbers dropped from 30,000 to 28,000. About one-third pursue M.A. degrees, and another third are non-degree and/or part time students as well as those pursuing doctorates.

More menu options

Fueling the popularity of M.A. degrees is a growing variety of M.A. degree programs. ATS schools currently offer more than 200 different degrees, some of them designed for people over 50 seeking a second career, or for younger people seeking to work outside the church. Here are some examples:

Meinzer predicts more new M.A. degree programs in the years to come, as seminaries see these degrees as growth opportunities that will bring in new students.

Liberty University’s Rawlings School of Divinity, the largest seminary by enrollment, promotes its “90 different areas of study” which “lets you customize your degree so it matches your calling.”

Rawlings is relatively new to ATS, having received its accreditation in 2020. The school, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1973 as the Lynchburg Baptist Theological Seminary, now attracts growing numbers of graduates from Liberty, one of the largest Christian schools in America.

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Accessibility a growing factor

Ready or not, seminaries put classes online after COVID struck. Now, online accessibility seems baked into the system of Christian higher education. During the pandemic outbreak, ATS suspended its decades-long requirement that seminary degrees require at least some in-person time with students.

“Accessibility is now part of students’ expectations,” said ATS’s Meinzer. “Accessibility influences student decisions, including where to attend, and perhaps whether or not to go to seminary at all.”

Full-time and part-time
“More and more seminary students are studying part-time, and more are working part-time work” said Meinzer. “We still have full-time, residential students, but that’s less the norm now.”

This fall’s 78,000 individual students are equivalent to about 48,000 full-time students, yielding a full-time equivalency rate of 61.5%. In 2000, the full-time equivalency was 66%, meaning that more students enrolled full-time back then.

Growth and decline

Every year, some schools add students while others lose them. Over the past three decades, ATS-accredited seminaries have seen periods of growth (1990 to 2000), decline (2001-2008), and stability (2009-now), according to ATS.

There have also been sudden growth spurts after the bursting of the Dotcom bubble in the early 2000s, 2008’s Great Recession, and the recent pandemic scares.

Meanwhile, individual schools have seen their own ups and downs. A comparison of fall’s enrollment figures with figures from the 2000-2001 school year show that:

Most Baptist schools have grown:

  • Southern Baptist Theological Seminary enrolled 1,671 students in fall 2019, but grew to 3,499 students this fall
  • Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: 486 to 2,533
  • Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: 1,281 to 2,246

But some Baptist schools have seen declining enrollment:

  • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: 3,094 to 2,331
  • New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary: 2,287 to 1,442

Seminaries in other Christian traditions have also shown mixed results. Some have steadily grown:

  • Dallas Theological Seminary: 1,606 to 2,523
  • Asbury Theological Seminary: 1,288 to 1,689
  • Denver Seminary: 632 to 891

While others have lost students:

  • Fuller Theological Seminary: 3,791 to 2,498
  • Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: 1,578 to 1,380
  • Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: 1,402 to 669

Declines lead to downsizing

Schools that face enrollment declines are doing what they can to stay afloat, whether that be layoffs, faculty cuts, sales of campus property, or some combination of efforts.

In October, the interim administration of the long-troubled Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, announced layoffs and restructuring designed to save $3.6 million and avoid a financial “crisis.”

In April, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School announced $1 million in spending cuts, including layoffs.

Among those downsizing their campus footprints are Gordon-Conwell, which is selling its $54 million campus and relocating, according to Christianity Today. Fuller has trimmed satellite campuses.

“With the economics of many churches struggling, it’s not surprising that some seminaries are also struggling economically,” said ATS’s Meinzer. “Schools with larger endowments and larger enrollments generally have more resources than other schools, but all will need creative ways to generate more resources to support their mission.”

Main photo: Aaron Burden / Unsplash

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.