Thanks to figures collected by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), it’s possible to compile full-time student enrollment among accredited schools to get a better picture of the largest seminaries in the United States.
Latest reports from the 2015-16 academic year reveal an interesting picture: students seeking training for church ministry in the United States are largely attracted to evangelical Protestant seminaries, a trend that hasn’t changed much over the past twenty years.
A note regarding data collection: this compiled list is only a comparison of full-time students enrolled in seminaries accredited with the ATS. The ATS does provide a head count enrollment total which includes part-time students. But since full-time enrollment is the most stable measure of seminary size, this still accurately represents institutional attainment.
The evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary ranks largest with 1,542 full-time enrolled students during the 2015-16 academic year. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary follow closely behind with 1,438 and 1,356 full-time enrolled students, respectively.
While all of the ten largest seminaries in the country are evangelical Protestant, it’s interesting that half of those schools are Southern Baptist-affiliated. Five of the six theological seminaries associated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are among the top ten largest in the country. Meanwhile, the SBC-affiliated Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary barely missed the list with 705 full-time students enrolled.
Fluctuations between America’s top ten largest seminaries during the 2015-16 and 1995-96 academic school years are surprisingly narrow. Only Reformed Theological Seminary, Presbyterian Church USA-affiliated Princeton Theological Seminary, and United Methodist Church-affiliated Candler School of Theology fell out of the top ten.
Since the 1995-96 academic school year, Princeton Theological Seminary has seen 30 percent fewer full-time enrolled students. Reformed Theological Seminary saw a 33 percent decrease to 547 full-time students while Candler School of Theology experienced a 39 percent drop to 414 full-time students.
There were a few positive changes. Since 1995-96, the evangelical Wesleyan-rooted Asbury Theological Seminary experienced a 50 percent increase in full-time student enrollment. “They are drawn to Asbury’s distinctives of a high regard for biblical authority and commitment to preparing women and men for evangelistic ministry,” wrote Dr. Tom Tumblin, Dean of the Asbury seminary Beeson International Center for Biblical Preaching and Leadership, in an article for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “Our faculty includes world-class scholars who have rich field experience and embrace God’s call to go, disciple, baptize and teach.”
Midwestern Theological Seminary sprung into the top ten largest seminaries with an inspiring 136 percent increase in full-time student enrollment since 1995. Similarly, evangelical Gordon-Conwell also moved up among the largest seminaries with a 57 percent increase in full-time students over the past two decades.
Of course, we can’t ignore the significant decline in full-time enrollment among Fuller, Southwestern, Trinity Evangelical, and several others that have transpired over the course of twenty years. Explanations may vary as to the reasons. Perhaps America’s slowly-recovering economy after the 2008 recession played a role or society’s growing discomfort with Christianity and hostility towards the public role of the Church makes an impact on student’s career choices.
It’s hard not to notice the smallest Protestant Seminaries in the country while collecting ATS figures.
Among the smallest accredited Protestant seminaries in the nation are three Episcopal seminaries: Bexley Hall Seabury-Western Theological Seminary Federation with 17 full-time students enrolled, General Theological Seminary with 34 full-time students, and Episcopal Divinity School with 35 full-time students. IRD’s Jeffrey Walton reported Episcopal Divinity School will no longer grant degrees after the coming academic school year. “A menu of recycled 1960s-era liberation theology themes garnished with radical sexuality and gender studies proved unappealing to prospective seminarians,” noted Walton.
Meanwhile, it’s two Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-associated seminaries that reveal another interesting contrast among evangelical institutions. Unlike the chart-topping conservative SBC-affiliated seminaries, the more liberal CBF-affiliated Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond counted 42 full-time students and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky had only 31 full-time students in 2015-16.
In 2006 Dr. Russell Moore, then senior vice president and dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, predicted CBF would fail because of “the disaster of CBF’s seminaries and divinity schools,” according to a Baptist Press News report. “Unlike SBC seminaries, which are held accountable by the congregations of the Southern Baptist Convention, the CBF seminaries and divinity schools are accountable only to a donor base of nostalgic Baptist liberals.”
Outliers such as the orthodox Reformed Episcopal Seminary with its 24 full-time students do exist. Not to mention even the most conservative evangelical seminary isn’t completely immune to theologically misleading faculty and other problems.
However, the consistency in seminary choices over the past twenty years corroborates most full-time students called to ministry prefer orthodox Christianity to liberal trend followers.