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The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This is a shortened version of a story by Kathryn Post published on Dec. 2, 2022. The third paragraph and sentences in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and ninth paragraphs have been added to give context for the Christian Reformed Church.

Professional degrees are attracting a higher percentage of students at theological schools across the U.S. and Canada, while the traditional ministerial degree, the master of divinity, is falling off in enrollment, according to data from The Association of Theological Schools released in November.

Chris Meinzer, senior director and chief operating officer of ATS noted that overall enrollment at ATS schools has remained stable and that the master of divinity degree isn’t dying. Instead, he said, the M.A. degree is appealing to more students.

This trend is not found at Calvin Theological Seminary, the Grand Rapids, Mich., seminary associated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Denise Mokma, assistant registrar and academic services coordinator for Calvin Seminary, acknowledged that the school’s M.A. enrollment rose between 2018 and 2021, but enrollment for M.A. programs in Fall 2022 “returned to near 2018 levels.” 

Calvin is one of more than 270 member schools in the umbrella organization. The Association reported an uptick in doctor of ministry and other professional doctoral programs designed to enhance a minister’s practical skills.

Based on enrollment numbers reported by almost 90% of schools, projected enrollment for doctoral and similar programs in 2022 was 12,300 students, a 4% increase from fall 2021 and a notable 24% increase from fall 2018, according to the ATS. Calvin Seminary launched a DMin program in 2020, so it does not have data back to 2018. 

The Master of Arts degree, a two-year program that trains students for a wide range of professions, including doctoral studies, nonprofit work, and lay ministry, has also seen a subtle increase of 1% since fall 2021, and 5% since fall 2018, according to fall 2022 projections from ATS. Enrollment in M.A. programs is now on par with enrollment in Master of Divinity programs for the first time in ATS history, according to fall 2022 projections. That doesn’t hold true at Calvin where Mokma said enrollment for the Master of Divinity program “remains higher than M.A. enrollment, as it has been over the years.” 

The ATS data show a decline in the percentage of students enrolled in a Master of Divinity degree, a three-year program typically chosen by students pursuing ordination. The projected enrollment for fall 2022 is 28,000 Master of Divinity students, a 4% decrease from fall 2021 and 9% decline since fall 2018. Master of Divinity programs still constitute 35% of enrollment at theological schools overall, per fall 2022 projections. That’s a significant decline from the 43% of total enrollment for Master of Divinity degrees a decade ago. At Calvin, based on Fall 2022 enrollment, Master of Divinity students represent 35% of overall enrollment; that number was 46% of overall enrollment in Fall 2012.

Meinzer said several factors steer students toward Master of Arts programs. In some Christian contexts, he said, the Master of Divinity is no longer required for ordination. The two-year degree also might entice students over the typically three-year Master of Divinity degree because it requires less time and less of a financial investment. Others might be attracted to specific master’s degree programs. 

“There is lots of creativity happening within our schools,” Meinzer pointed out. Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., for instance, added a fully online Master of Arts in Justice and Advocacy program in fall 2021. Calvin Seminary offers two Master of Arts degrees, both available as residential, online, or hybrid programs—M.A. in Bible and Theology and M.A. in Christian Leadership.

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