University President Peter Salovey announced in an email to the Yale community earlier this month that the University will focus on reducing the amount of debt held by many professional school students.
In his Oct. 14 email, Salovey highlighted the University’s various initiatives to “shore up” financial aid for all students in need. He wrote that approximately 85 percent of the Yale College class of 2020 graduated debt-free as a result of the college’s financial aid policies. In the professional schools, however, Salovey indicated there was more work to do with reducing student debt. Affiliates of the Yale Divinity School and Yale School for the Environment — both of which maintained their annual tuition increases this year — spoke to the News about the impact of student debt and efforts to alleviate it.
“We need to do more to address the high levels of debt among students graduating from some of our professional schools,” Salovey wrote in the email. “I will make it a special focus to seek funds for financial aid in the fields that are least remunerative, such as public health, nursing, divinity, environment and the arts.”
According to Yale Divinity School spokesperson Tom Krattenmaker, 56 percent of divinity students took out loans to pay for the program during the 2019 fiscal year, and the average amount of debt among students who borrowed was $58,805. Divinity School tuition also increased from $25,440 in 2019-20 to $25,950 in 2020-21.
Yale Divinity School Associate Dean Vernice Randall DIV ’11 told the News that student debt is one of the greatest concerns in higher education and that it is affecting every theological school in North America.
She added that high levels of debt, when combined with “relatively low” average starting salaries in theological professions, have a negative impact on unfolding ministerial careers.
“There are many graduate degrees that come with the promise of ‘big salaries,’” Randall wrote in a statement to the News. “Theological schools do not make that promise, especially to students who are going into parish ministry.”
Instead, Randall said the school remains steadfastly committed to raising funds for student scholarship and helping students with financial management while in school. These initiatives include providing financial counseling, adding a finance-related theological course to the curriculum and offering budgeting tools through online platforms to students, according to Randall.
Currently, Divinity School financial aid funding comes from an annual alumni fund, endowed funds designated for scholarships and unrestricted endowed funds, according to Divinity School Senior Director of Alumni Engagement and Development Barbara Sabia.
Randall also added that she recognized how the high levels of debt among divinity students impact the students themselves, as well as their families, the church and the world more broadly.
“There is some sense that, in getting into the profession in which we were, making that sort of monetary self-sacrifice and capping our earning potential was just part of the gig,” Daniel Miller DIV ’14 said. “I don’t think there was that much complaining about [high levels of student debt] just because it was a lived-in reality.”
Managing debt is also part of the realities students face in the Yale School of the Environment.
Yale School of the Environment Executive Director of Strategic Communications Paige Stein said that 83 percent of the school’s master’s students receive financial aid. She added that doctoral students are guaranteed full funding for five years, which covers full tuition, health coverage and a stipend.
When asked about changes to the Yale School of the Environment’s financial aid policy to address high levels of student debt, Stein wrote that scholarship fundraising remains an “evergreen priority” for the school’s development office.
The School of the Environment raised its tuition to $44,875 for the 2020-21 academic year –– up $1,305 from the 2019-20 academic year’s tuition of $43,570. Even so, Stein described new initiatives that the school is taking to help students handle this increased cost.
“YSE gave a scholarship equal to the tuition increase to all students to keep tuition [paid by the students] steady this year,” Stein wrote in an email to the News.
Similarly, Krattenmaker told the News that the Yale Divinity School aims to meet 100 percent of its students’ demonstrated tuition needs by the 2022-23 academic year. He provided data showing that the gap between the school’s tuition and its standard financial aid package has decreased over the last five years — the gap is currently $5,440.
But students often accumulate debt that is not related to their tuition payments. Miller said that he received enough scholarship money to cover Divinity School tuition, so the debt he accumulated was related to his living expenses.
“I needed money to live,” Miller said. “I needed to pay rent. I needed to buy groceries. I needed to go out with friends. I needed to visit family, to put gas in the car. When I was taking out a loan, it wasn’t necessarily for education, but for living. That’s an odd feeling but it’s a necessity.”
Miller added that Salovey’s announcement of a new focus on reducing debt levels among professional school students is “a wonderful thing.”
Randall said that the Divinity School was committed to controlling and managing student debt. She said that the school is aware of where the trouble is and what types of collaborative responses will be required to mitigate the negative impacts of theological student debt on the Divinity School community.
“[The University’s new focus on professional school student debt] affords people the opportunity to seek the things they really want to do, rather than thinking they have to take something to pay off their debt quickly,” Miller said.
According to the most recent data from the Office of Institutional Research, the percentage of students receiving financial aid at each professional school ranges between 55 percent and 100 percent.
Julia Brown | firstname.lastname@example.org