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We are losing an entire generation of laborers to student loan debt


February 20, 2017
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“The greatest enemy [to sending] other than Satan himself is educational debt.” – Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary

Seven out of ten students that we are challenging to full-time ministry carry a crippling weight.

Seven out of ten college graduates have student loans. And their average debt is $37,172.

Seven out of ten. That is truly staggering. Overwhelming.

Ben Sawatsky, associate personnel director of Evangelical Free Church Missions, says “95% or more of those who apply as potential candidates are paying off student loans.”

Increasingly, student loan debt is becoming the number one obstacle to students working in full-time ministry.

Student debt has tripled over the past eight years.

“What [mission agencies] told us over and over is that the number-one barrier to getting people to live and work overseas was debt. They called it the black hole.” – Johnnie Moore, Senior VP of Communications at Liberty University

Student debt now exceeds credit card debt and trails only mortgages as the leading cause of debt in the United States.

And student loans will not go away. They can’t be refinanced or wiped out with bankruptcy.

“Thousands of US college graduates desire to willingly place themselves on the front lines of the mission field for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Tragically, many of them will never go because of the barrier created by their student debt.” – Luke Womack founder of The Go Fund

This is a relatively new problem. College tuition costs 17 times more than it did 40 years ago.

According to cnsnews.com, federal student loan debt has increased by an average of more than $100 billion per year since 2007.

It’s becoming nearly impossible to work your way through college and emerge debt free. I’ve met one student who’s done it in the past 10 years. One.

“The landscape of college affordability has changed dramatically. Long gone are the days where working a summer job would yield enough money to foot the bill for college. There is now more pressure than ever to get a high paying job to tackle student loans as efficiently as possible. This pressure exists for everyone, missionary or otherwise.” – Luke Womack

Let’s lay out the problem:

  • To work in full-time ministry, you need a college degree.
  • The cost of a college degree is 17 times more expensive now.
  • 7 out of 10 graduates who want to go into full-time ministry find it very difficult to do so. Their debt is so high that monthly payments can’t be made on a missionary salary.
“Educational loan debt introduces a threat to the spread of the Gospel that promises cataclysmic and eternal consequences for the unreached sinner if nothing is changed.” – Luke Womack

There are two options:

  • Allow missionaries to forgo college
  • Get in the trenches and help graduates overcome their student loan debt

The first is not really an option. Specifically for working in college ministry, you need a degree to be able to hold your own with college students.

But in any ministry context, I think a college degree is worth it because:

  • A college degree opens up doors to unreached people by getting missionaries into closed countries.
  • Young people mature in college and develop the work ethic, responsibility, and initiative necessary to be effective missionaries.
  • Students’ involvement in college ministries is where they develop a heart for the world and the skills to effectively minister for Christ. I’ve written before that college ministries are the number one producer of missionaries.

Students considering full-time ministry with significant debt:

  • Get a job in the workplace and aggressively pay off debt
  • Go straight into ministry and include loan payments in the support that they raise

The first option is difficult because most will not make it to the field. Many may get entangled in the worries of the world and the American Dream.

The only times I’ve seen this successful is when missionary candidates have stated a specific plan and had friends hold them accountable.

It’s too easy to rationalize: “Well, if I just worked 6 more months I could save another $30,000 for a rainy day. That might help be a better steward for God…” And then: “We have a baby on the way, and I need to save for our first house before I go into ministry…”

But for those who’ve done it (and made it to the ministry field), it’s been great. They come into ministry with a good work ethic and debt free. It’s just that few make it.

Kyle, a missionary with Pioneers, has this advice:

“Stick to [a loan payoff] plan as if your life depends on it. The people I knew from college who had no loan repayment plan never made it overseas. Without a plan, they lost focus when the debt wasn’t easily paid off.”

The second option is not perfect. In an ideal world you’d go into full-time ministry debt free. But we should encourage students to go, in confidence that God will provide. Kyle once more with wise advice:

“For most students coming out of college, I recommend this option. Here’s why. In my experience, many mission-minded people are not able to land jobs that pay enough to kill debt fast (because their degrees are not in demand). While the ideal is a high-paying job, many end up working in a position that pays barely enough to live on. Don’t be ashamed to add a certain amount of money into your budget to repay student loans, and don’t hide behind a rock when people ask about it.”

Just know your facts about the rising cost of college and your plan to aggressively pay off debt and you can confidently field questions from donors.

So what can we do about student loan debt?

  • Talk about student loan debt at your weekly meeting, in discipleship, with your leaders. Normalize it. I didn’t realize this until I started asking questions of new Cru staff, but graduates often have a tremendous amount of shame and guilt related to school debt. They feel unspiritual, foolish, and enslaved not realizing that there are other people just like them.
  • Train graduates in how to rapidly get rid of school debt
    • Encourage them to read Dave Ramsey’s books or even take one of his classes and start to snowball debt
    • Allison Vesterfelt has a good firsthand account of being $50,000 in debt and what she did about it
  • Missions organizations need to raise their debt limits. If we require applicants to have a college degree, and 70-95% have $30,000 in school debt, we need to make allowances for greater debt.
    • I know many organizations are being proactive. With Cru, if a single person only has student loans (no car, credit card, etc), depending on interest rates, we may accept up into the $30k’s. For marrieds it can be double that. If there is car or credit card debt, you can definitely still be accepted with significant student loan debt, but it does affect the calculations.
    • Cru treats it holistically and tries to accept as many people as possible but they don’t want to put people in a position that is unsustainable. Their limits are set with the aim that staff will be able to pay off all student debt in 10 years and all credit card and consumer debt in 3 years.
    • Todd Ahrend, in his book In This Generation (which admittedly is 7 years old and undoubtedly things have changed), surveyed 10 missions agencies. Two allowed no student debt. The other eight had a debt limit between $20-$25,000.
    • If we want the best and the brightest to join us in accomplishing the greatest mission in the world, we need to make allowances. Ivy League graduates (and other graduates of elite, leader-producing schools) often carry significantly more than average school debt. We’re losing these elite leaders if we don’t make allowances.
  • We need more foundations and organizations like The Go Fund who offer to take over student loan payments for some who go to the unreached.
    • We should consider reaching out to our largest ministry partners and show them the significant hurdles graduates are facing and ask if they would help us overcome that hurdle. Start a foundation where maybe ministry applicants would pay down half and a foundation would pay the other half.
  • We need to become educated ourselves and help seniors who are graduating become familiar with their options on dealing with debt after college. Here are some great resources:
“We should declare war on educational loan debt for the sake of those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.” – Luke Womack

There is so much at stake; we cannot afford to sit idly by while we lose a generation of laborers for the gospel. We will feel the ripple effects for decades if we do nothing.

Let’s figure this out together. What has been helpful for you in helping students overcome educational debt to serve God in full-time ministry?

  • Thank you for the well-researched article Tim! For those interested in applying for loan repayment with The GO Fund, please visit thegofund.com/apply. Hope that helps.