On Thursday, May 1, I received an email with the subject line “READ THIS” (all in capital letters suggesting that this was an important message). Like many other schools of our size, Winebrenner Theological Seminary was just becoming aware that our name is on a list of schools eligible to receive funds from the US Department of Education as a result of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Specifically, the email was in regards to Section 18004(a)(3) of the CARES Act, indicating that schools who received less than $500,000 from an earlier provision were going to receive a “top off” bringing their balance to the full $500,000.
There are multiple national news outlets and advocacy organizations focusing on this issue and either directly or indirectly raising the question about why smaller schools, many seminaries, are receiving funds at higher levels (in terms of % of annual expenses and revenue) than other, larger, colleges and universities. For example, NPR had a recent article, Inside Higher Education reported a perspective, as well as concerns raised by advocacy groups such as the Center for American Progress about the way the funds have been distributed. I’ve chosen these stories specifically because over the past few days, I’ve personally spoken by phone with several of the authors and sources referenced in these articles.
In another forum someone referred to these funds as “free unrestricted money” which, in my interpretation, violates the letter and spirit of the funds. To be fair, after I contacted the person he clarified his view and is now expressing much more alignment with what I’m writing. Handled poorly, the use of these funds could raise questions about the trustworthiness and kingdom orientation of seminaries and graduate schools of theology. Handled well, these funds provide an opportunity for schools such as Winebrenner to reach a wider audience and provide education that is affordable, accessible, and of high quality.
For the sake of clarity and openness, Winebrenner Theological Seminary is applying for these funds. However, we have done so only after a staff meeting that determined how we would utilize the money when it’s received. This plan has been affirmed by our Board of Trustees at our regularly scheduled meeting. In summary, our plan is to use the funds for lost revenue from our affiliated denomination, enhancing IT infrastructure, personnel costs, and student aid in the form of reduced tuition. In fact, during the 2020-2021 academic year we’ll be testing a new payment model to incentivize students to enroll and lower reliance on federal student loans.
While the number of students at most seminaries is far below other public and private colleges and universities, the potential reach and impact for seminaries is significant. For example, Winebrenner continues to explore ways in which we can provide education, via bachelor equivalency, for the 35 million+ who have a partially completed bachelor’s degree.
For any school accepting these funds, my challenge is to be intentional about how you will use the funds as a way to serve both current and future students.
– Dr. Brent Sleasman, President
– Image by Joshua Sukoff, accessed via AdobeSpark