Over the past few months this series has described multiple ways in which theological education could be more effectively delivered to those who are sensing God’s call. A challenge with a systemic problem is that while the “problem” may look similar across various schools the solutions and responses will be unique due to specific mission and strategy.
This week we’re exploring how this ongoing conversation intersects with the area of enrollment management. Anyone who has ever been employed by or spent much time at a seminary working through financial turmoil will hear the oft-repeated refrain “we just need more students” as if this is a panacea to all the problems the school is facing. An unseen problem this presents is that new students don’t just appear – they are engaged in response to increased spending in advertising or the fixed costs in hiring a new person in admissions or recruiting. These actions lead to increased expenses and, if left unexamined, can start the very cycle described in the previous post. It’s highly likely that most “death spirals” of uncontrollable expenses began with good intentions.
How do we need to shift our thinking and operations in order to develop the operating system that’s been introduced over the past few posts?
First, we need to adjust how we think about engaging students. The typical student who pursues theological education only completes one application and has found that school through a direct recommendation or network connection. We need to accept a new reality from what we’ve inherited in conversations and well-traveled myths: we are not in competition for students. This has been verified through recent conversations with Chris Meinzer at ATS. If there is any competition to be found, it’s between either attending any seminary or not attending at all. There is no competition in God’s kingdom.
Second, based upon multiple conversations with prospective students, church and denominational leaders, and other seminary leaders, there is less clarity today than at any time in memory about what their future may look like. Students are less and less interested in a full academic program and more interested in a “next step” in pursuit of their own calling. Theological education is primarily a task of discipleship. We need to move away from the idea that we’re “selling” academic programs and recognize that we are walking along side of students in their own spiritual journey and development.
Third, advertising and marketing will continue to have diminishing returns. Beyond the ethical concerns raised by the “big data” used by Facebook and other vendors, paying for advertising only contributes to the type of expenses that needs continual re-investment in order to maintain the return on the investment. Yes, there will always be a school who is an outlier and exception and demonstrates consistent results with marketing and advertising. However, it’s far better to invest time and money in building the relational pathways necessary for collaboration. The temptation of short-term gains can be hard to overcome; however, the long-term benefits of collaboration are much more scalable and sustainable than a new burst of money need to invest in marketing efforts.
These shifts in thinking help provide the infrastructure for a sustainable future. A key component of Winebrenner’s education is affordability which requires reimagining systems of support, delivery, partnership, and resource management. All of these changes allow us to be better stewards of the resources God has provided…which is the topic of next week’s post.
– by Dr. Brent Sleasman, President