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The impact on enrollment of reducing MDiv credit hours

In my last blog, I noted that receiving one great question from a school can lead to greater comprehension for the entire ATS membership. Over the summer, I received a question from a vice president of planning and institutional effectiveness who was interested in discerning what impact, if any, reducing the number of credit hours in an MDiv degree had on enrollment. What a great question! The answer has several parts.

First, a recent review of ATS member school websites shows the following credit hours required for the MDiv among the schools:

  • About 25% require 72-80 hours
  • About 25% require 80-89 hours
  • About 20% require exactly 90 hours
  • About 15% require 91-99 hours
  • About 15% require 100 or more hours

Second, if there is a notable trend among ATS schools, it would be toward a reduction in the number of credit hours required to complete the MDiv. In the most recent decade, many schools have reduced their required MDiv hours to below 90. As can be seen above, 50% of ATS schools now require fewer than 90 hours to complete the MDiv. A decade ago, the vast majority of ATS schools would have required 90 or more hours to graduate with an MDiv degree.

Third, I reviewed the change in enrollment over the last five years for schools that had reduced the credit hours within their MDiv. This impacted about 115 ATS schools, or almost half of schools that offer the MDiv. Of the schools that have reduced their hours below 90 hours, the following chart reflects what happened with their MDiv enrollment in the last five years. (For the purposes of the chart, “growth” is defined as an increase in enrollment of 5%, “decline” is defined as a decrease in enrollment of more than -5%, and “stable” is defined as change in enrollment of +-5%.)


MDiv Enrollment
All ATS Schools

MDiv Credit Hours
Not Reducing
MDiv Credit Hours
Enrollment growth 26% 18% 33%
Enrollment stable 12% 14% 10%
Enrollment decline 62% 68% 57%

Finally, I reviewed the current MDiv credit hour expectations by ATS schools stratified by ecclesial family. At present, mainline Protestant institutions are more likely to require fewer than 90 hours to complete the MDiv degree, and by a substantial margin.

Credit Hours to Graduate


Roman Catholic/
<90 hours 44% 71% 28%
90 hours 20% 23% 18%
>90 hours 36% 6% 54%

There are a few brief items of note in the chart and broader data. Overall, MDiv enrollment has declined from about 32,000 in fall 2012 to about 29,000 in fall 2016. Over the last five years, four in ten ATS schools have shown MDiv enrollment growth or stability, while six in ten schools have shown MDiv enrollment declines. When looking at only schools that have reduced their credit hours in the last decade, more of those schools have shown MDiv enrollment decline than schools that have not reduced their required credit hours. This is likely not what ATS schools expected when they reduced their credit hours for the MDiv.

There are many good and appropriate reasons to reduce the number of credit hours within a degree program, and each school should undertake a periodic review of its degrees offered to ensure they are serving the school’s mission.

There are potentially many reasons why MDiv enrollment would grow or decline in a theological school. A thorough analysis of enrollment management practices throughout the institution can yield some interesting outcomes and deeper questions. Moreover, there are many good and appropriate reasons to reduce the number of credit hours within a degree program, and each ATS school should undertake a periodic review of its degrees offered to ensure they are serving the school’s mission. Further, it is not possible to know for sure if enrollment declines would have been deeper had changes in required hours not been made. Nonetheless, assuming enrollment growth because of the decrease in credit hours is not supported by the data (at least not for the MDiv over the last five years).

If you have a reaction or further questions about this topic, send me an email and let me know. Also, let me know if there are other questions out there that your school has been pondering. Your good question just might end up assisting others, too.


Very helpful information, Chris, as always. So, I wonder if there is a correlation between those schools that reduced their MDiv hours and lower student debt in the MDiv program in those schools.

Gary, that is a good question, but one that it is still too early to discern. Tuition paid to a school is certainly a factor, but the work of the ECFFM Initiative seems to indicate that living expenses are more of a driver in student educational debt. Therefore, if a school can get a student through its program faster by reducing credit hours required, then it might follow that student educational debt would be reduced (less tuition paid and living expenses for a shorter program). But it is too early to know for sure.


Thank you for this article. Are the numbers based on a semester- or quarter-credit program?



You've provided some excellent information and analysis regarding MDiv enrollment trends compared with total degree credits. Thank you. In the article you make the astute observation that, "it is not possible to know for sure if enrollment declines would have been deeper had changes in required hours not been made," Very true, but I would think that we can know whether a change in degree credits has any perceivable effect on a school's rate of decline. How does the drop in enrollment at these schools PRIOR to a credit hour change for the MDiv compare to the rate of decline AFTER they made the change? In other words, for a seminary in decline, is there any evidence that a credit hour change in the MDiv slows the loss of enrollment? For this analysis I would think you could look simply at the schools that have made a change in credit hours for the MDiv and compare their enrollment trends pre/post change.

Andrew, the data would show a bit of a mixed result with no convincing trend. There are some schools that appear to have slowed an enrollment decline after the MDiv credit hour reduction while others showed the same downward trajectory. Again, it is hard to know for sure what the enrollment patterns would have been if no action had been taken. Thanks for your question.

Could it be that the schools who lowered their requirements were already experiencing an enrollment decline and took that measure as a response, and that the schools that did not lower their requirements were already experiencing growth and saw no need to make any changes? The question is one of causality. Did the reduction in hours cause the decline, or did decline precipitate the reduction? Did keeping the hours steady cause growth, or did growth indicate no need to lower the credit hour requirement? What was the enrollment trend in the 5 years prior to lowering their requirements, and what was the enrollment trend for the growing schools in that same 5-year time period?

Steve, I appreciate the nuance of your question. I do not know why schools chose to reduce their M.Div. hours specifically, but I do not that many saw it as an opportunity to be responsive to what they believe was necessary for the constituency and to be more competitive.

Of the schools that were on a downward trajectory before changing their credit hours, 80% continued enrollment declines and 20% showed some enrollment increases after the change.

Of the schools that were on a stable to upward trajectory before changing their credit hours, about 67% then showed enrollment decreases with 33% keeping their stable or upward trajectory.

I circulated this research to our faculty at the Earlham School of Religion, since we are now doing strategic planning. Colleagues had a few questions, so I thought you might have responses. First, though it seems you suggest that schools that were seeing a drop in enrollment then tried to stop the declin by reducing credit hours, it could run the other way: schools reduced credit hours and then a decline began. Of course, there could be other factors involved where reducing credit hours and enrollment decline had nothing to do with each other. So, was there any clarity whether or not schools were trying reduced credit hours to stop declining enrollment?
We are aware of the Pew studies and others that talk about the increase in the "none and dones" and wonder if you have seen research that looks for the relationship between that societal reduction in interest in religion and declining enrollment, including which group of schools (your Evangelical Protestant/Mainline Protestant/Catholic-Orthodox) have been impacted by this.

Lonnie, please see my other responses related to your questions. Thanks.

This data is intriguing and quite possibly alarming! It's unclear what the timeline was on this data. When did these schools reduce the credit hour requirements relative to the five-year enrollment data? If this period is not circumscribed to the period BEFORE the enrollment data, then it's quite possible that the course reduction was the result of an enrollment trend, not the cause of it. A robust analysis would examine the enrollment trends AFTER the degree change while ALSO controlling for prior decline.

Chanequa, please see my responses to other similar questions. The timeline of the review was the last decade (2007-2016).

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