By Paula Ann Solis
Though Baylor announced a record-breaking total enrollment in September with 15,616 students, those numbers do not reflect the five-year enrollment decline faced by George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
According to Baylor’s Institutional Research and Testing database, there are 323 students enrolled either as non-degree seeking, masters or doctoral candidates.
This is the lowest number recorded by Truett in the past 12 years. Since 2008, the seminary school has decreased enrollment an average of more than 16 students each year.
“This is something happening nationwide,” said Dr. David E. Garland, dean of Truett Seminary. “The economic crisis hit about the same time as the start of our enrollment decline.”
According to the Association of Theological Schools, there were 74,193 students enrolled at schools accredited by the association in 2011, a decline of 5,051 students from 2007.
Garland said students’ financial concerns, especially those leaving undergraduate school with heavy debt, and the competition from nearby ministry master’s programs are two principal reasons Truett numbers are falling.
To counter this, Truett offers one of the more affordable seminary options, Garland said.
Truett Seminary’s basic tuition rate is $773 per hour before scholarships are applied and before membership in a Baptist church is confirmed.
Affiliation with a Baptist church can lower hourly costs anywhere between $100 and $301.
Garland said all Truett students receive some form of financial assistance and 266 endowment scholarships allows the seminary to provide further support.
All of this, Garland said, is an effort by the school to combat the national trend of declining numbers of seminary students that are searching for affordable and flexible options.
One flexible option students are seeking, as an alternative to traditional schools like Truett, is online or distance learning. Online courses are not offered by Truett and, in the past, online programs were not an accredited form for obtaining a seminary degree according to national standards.
The Association of Theological Schools Commission on Accrediting previously denied accreditation to master’s of divinity programs that were completely online, according to a report by the association.
In August 2012, the commission made fully online degree programs accredited at six member schools.
One such school is Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Nearby is also Dallas Theological Seminary which reported 2,007 students in the fall of 2012.
According to its website, 411 of those are online students and 321 are extension students.
“We offer residential, long programs while other schools offer something online,” Garland said. “People are looking for something more convenient.”
That growing need for convenience is something the school is working toward with a new extension campus in Austin that is scheduled to open January 2014, according to the Truett Seminary’s website.
Garland said Truett will open another extension campus in Dallas, though it has not been announced on the website as of yet. It will begin accepting students fall 2014.
“We are still deeply committed to resident education,” Garland said. “But many people now have ministry positions and they are trying to earn masters degrees at the same time. It is difficult for them to uproot and live in Waco for three years.”
Garland said several Truett students are commuters that travel from San Antonio, Houston and other nearby cities.
The ability to complete half a degree in neighboring cities at extension campuses will help better accommodate the needs of future students. However, the remaining hours must be in-residence hours.
While this one post-graduate school at Baylor is working to rebound from an enrollment drop, another, the Baylor Graduate School has experienced a slight increase in recent years and a significant increase is expected next year.
The Graduate School has plans in motion to add to its student body with the addition of two new doctoral programs, a Ph.D. in higher education studies and leadership and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.
Both programs are expected to begin fall 2014.
Dr. Larry Lyon, dean of the Graduate School, said though the Graduate School will likely see an increase in its enrollment numbers, its primary goal is quality.
“Our enrollment is getting stronger academically,” Lyon said. “That is to say GPA and standardized test scores are getting stronger every year.”
The future of the Graduate School may also see a strengthening of master’s programs with the possible addition of an online MBA.
Lyon said the Graduate Curriculum Committee is considering the approval for the online program.
“I am reasonably confident about it,” Lyon said. “It could start pretty soon after approval. But first we have to make sure the technology is in place.”
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to clarify that Truett Seminary is not seeking to add online courses. Instead, schools that offer online courses have been competition for Truett and measures to combat that competition are being taken.