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High educational debt a growing threat to religious vocations


A new study on Catholic vocations reveals that educational debt is derailing the dreams of young people to become religious sisters, brothers, or priests. And the problem is likely to get worse: Religious institutes report an increase in the number of inquirers with large educational debt and national averages show record levels of student debt continuing to rise.

 The 2012 Study on Educational Debt and Vocations to Religious Life, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA) for the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), finds that seven in ten institutes (69 percent) turned away at least one person because of student loans. In addition, many religious communities ask young people to delay their applications to enter because of educational debt.

 “For those entering religious life, the expectation is that they be debt-free,” says Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, Executive Director of NRVC, “but for graduates in today’s economy, where education costs have risen by 900 percent since 1978, paying off loans can take years to accomplish. The burden of student debt has become a serious problem for religious communities desirous of welcoming younger members.”

 Of approximately 15,000 serious inquiries to men’s and women’s religious institutes in the past 10 years, one in three (32 percent) involved a person with educational debt averaging $28,000, a figure slightly higher than the $25,000 national average.

 The majority of communities (two in three) show a willingness to work with candidates with educational debt—and some 42 percent of responding institutes assume educational debt for a least some of those who apply to enter their communities.

 But, the study indicates, the practice of assuming debt places a heavy and growing financial burden on religious communities. Those applying to enter religious life during the past 10 years carried $3 million in educational debt, and if national trends continue, that overall student debt load will likely rise by 5 percent annually.

 Men and women whose educational debt is delaying their entrance into a religious community often develop creative strategies for paying off their loans, such as online candy sales, marathon runs, or bingo fundraisers.


2012 NRVC CARA Study on Educational Debt and Vocations - Complete Report




I am delighted to present you with the final results of our newest study on educational debt and vocations. This study, generously funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, was commissioned by the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

I take this opportunity to thank Dr. Kathleen Mahoney, project director, and Dr. Mary Gautier, senior research associate at CARA, for their dedicated commitment to this project. In addition, I extend my gratitude to the members of the original working group who assisted in the planning of this study: Sister Ellen Dauwer, SC, Sister Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, Brother Campion Lally, OSF, J.D., Dr. Sharon Miller, and Sister Anne Walsh, ASCJ.

With accumulated educational debt increasing by five percent yearly in the United States, the research was designed with two main goals:

1) to learn more about the impact of student loans on the men and women who are coming to religious life today.

2) to learn about the policy and practices of the religious institutes regarding educational debt and to learn from their experiences.

The study has found that our national educational debt problem is definitely impeding young women and men from pursuing life as a religious priest, sister, or brother. When one out of three people applying to religious life has student loans of almost $21,000, this inevitably becomes a financial strain on some religious institutes. Some communities have no alternative but to ask potential candidates to delay their applications, or even worse, turn them away altogether.

This issue highlights one aspect of the complexity of the religious vocation question in this country. Although the solutions are not simple, NRVC is committed to finding ways to ameliorate this problem. We hope to convene in the near future a group of key stakeholders to explore possible solutions. In addition, we will publish a book of guidelines on educational debt for major superiors, vocation directors, and financial officers of religious institutes.

Changing times present new challenges to the Church and the world. In the midst of this, our faith and history attest that God does not stop calling men and women to religious life. The question is how to alleviate the barriers that may prevent them from further discernment of this call. This question, however, is not just for religious communities. If the Church and world benefit from the lives and service of women and men religious, then all of us in the Church share in the responsibility of finding a solution.

May God bless our efforts.




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