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70 years and counting: Data and theological education

My colleague Chris Meinzer was going through some boxes in the storeroom last summer and found the chart pictured with this blog. It is the ATS (then AATS) data for 1946–1947. This month, ATS began collecting data for the 2016–2017 academic year. It has been seventy years of counting. Counting enrollment, counting revenue and expenditures, counting faculty, counting endowments. This fall, the requests for member schools to complete the Annual Report Forms went out one more time. Seventy years and counting.

In 1946, theological school leaders likely assessed their situation by anecdote and opinion: “Is enrollment up? It must be, it is at every school I have heard about.” At that time, member theological schools were comparatively homogeneous: mainline Protestant with a few exceptions, related to denominations that uniformly supported their theological schools financially, enrollment comprising mostly males who belonged to the denomination that sponsored the seminary, mostly male faculty, and students who were studying for congregational and parish ministry. The anecdotes and opinions may have provided a reasonable assessment of a homogeneous reality. ATS collected the data, and the data identified wealthy from less wealthy schools and larger ones from smaller ones, but for most part, the data likely confirmed the stories.

This fall, little is left to the 1946 theological school homogeneity other than that the schools are theological schools, and even that identity is changing. Opinions and anecdotes still abound, but leaders are more cautious in trusting these sources for the most accurate picture of finances and enrollment. Instead, they trust ATS data for comparisons of their schools with the community of schools as a whole. ATS does everything possible to make the data accurate and reliable and to publish it in the most useful forms for a snapshot of the schools as a whole (in the Annual Data Tables) and for individual school comparisons (the Institutional Peer Profile Report and Strategic Information Report). The data aren’t perfect, but they are the best indicator available to describe trends and realities across a heterogeneous community of schools. Theological schools are far from data-driven, but they are increasingly data-informed.

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” That phrase has been attributed to many sources, and there is more clarity about its truth than its origin. Numbers describe some kinds of reality better than any alternative. It is more helpful, for example, to describe the enrollment of all ATS schools in terms of numbers than as a list of 76,000 names. It may be less helpful, however, to use numbers to describe an important outcome of theological education like spiritual maturity. Using numbers to make a decision about a particular school is no more valuable than using the reality of one school to make a decision about the larger community of schools. At this cultural moment, especially in the United States, considerable effort is being exerted to make accreditation more quantitative. A recent bill introduced as an amendment to the Higher Education Act would take advantage of big data and force accreditors to make accrediting decisions, at least in part, on the basis of a school’s retention and graduation rates as well as graduates’ default rates on student loans. These numbers can inform an accrediting decision. But basing accreditation decisions on gross numbers would be a huge mistake. In the first part of the 20th century, eugenics—new biological knowledge—was used in an effort to improve parts of the human species. It was a moral and cultural mistake. In the first part of this century, it seems the equivalent to eugenics is “datagenics”—using huge computing capacity to amass big data that is then used as the basis for social engineering of education, among others. I am reminded of the axiom that was drilled into graduate students in statistics classes: numbers don’t make decisions, people do.

Completing the comprehensive Annual Report Forms is no one’s favorite thing to do, and the numbers don’t tell us everything that needs to be known, but the numbers tell us some things that we cannot know as well in any other way. So, we will keep collecting data and counting, and counting, and counting.

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