A $500,000 donation to Harvard Divinity School has led to the creation of a loan reduction program, an addition eagerly anticipated by students seeking ways to balance the financial conflicts of repaying heavy student loan debt and pursuing careers in typically low-paying public service jobs.
“It’s a tremendous need,” said Cornelius O’Farrell, a third-year divinity student and president of the School’s Student Association Executive Committee. “A lot of the students are sobered by the fact that on one hand they have educational expenses to pay back and on the other hand they’re looking at the [low] salaries they’ll be earning, plus living expenses.”
The original $500,000, the gift of a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, was augmented by a two-for-one match by the Harvard Corporation using funds remaining from an allocation during the recent University Campaign. The program is expected to select its first recipients this spring.
The $1.5 million total will be used to create annual awards to two master’s of divinity students in their final year. The award will cover their final year’s tuition and fees, $17,926 for the next academic year. If funds are remaining, recipients will receive a stipend to cover living expenses. Help repaying previously accumulated debt is possible if any money is left over, according to Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid Anne Gardner.
A five-person selection committee will choose recipients from a pool of between 35 and 40 eligible students each year. Selection will be based on the candidate’s character, commitment, financial need, and the potential that their work will reduce suffering in disadvantaged communities, particularly that of children.
The new program is badly needed, according to Divinity School’s Associate Dean for Finance and Administration Timothy Cross. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of Divinity School students receive some sort of financial aid. The school itself devotes 20 percent of its budget to financial aid, but it’s still not enough, Cross said.
Students are coming to the Divinity School with higher levels of debt accumulated from their undergraduate years and piling graduate school debt on top of that. Average debt for M.Div. students leaving the Divinity School is $40,000, with some students incurring much higher levels.
In order to repay such steep debts, some students choose to pursue higher-paying jobs rather than go into low-paying ministries at poor, urban churches or work with nonprofits dealing with everything from battered women to hospice care.
“One of the huge issues is that our students go into low-paying careers,” Cross said.
O’Farrell, like many Divinity School students, has accumulated a substantial debt that he isn’t sure how he’s going to repay. A third-year student planning to become a Lutheran minister, O’Farrell owes about $60,000. Repaying those loans will be a challenge for someone looking to work in a poor parish where salaries can run just $20,000 to $30,000.
“Nobody goes into ministry to make a fortune, but you’d like to know you will be able to live,” O’Farrell said.
But like other Divinity students who feel a calling to a career in service, O’Farrell said he will go ahead with his plans to enter the ministry, debt or no debt.
“I’m going to figure out some way to be ordained, some way to do ministry,” O’Farrell said. “I’ll find some way to pay back my debt.”