I should say, up front, that my parents gave me extensive help. They promised each of three kids that they would pay for a bachelor's degree, and they did. My going to a state school and being a child of a disabled veteran helped a good bit on tuition, but room and board were as shocking then as now, I suppose. My parents also gave me extensive help on getting my seminary education -- out of the goodness of their hearts -- though I also worked while in seminary (including as a student pastor). I entered the clergy debt-free as far as education goes.
Not everyone has parents like that, I know. Deanne's parents couldn't help like that. She financed her three degrees (Associate's, Bachelor's, and Master's) on a combination of loans and our/her own savings and work. And within a short time after each degree, we had paid off her student debt -- so it can be done. Meanwhile, my Ph.D. was one of those things where the pittance the university paid me as a University Fellow was slightly more than I paid them in tuition, meaning I was literally "a professional student." But we scraped by in poverty to make our living expenses at the same time. At one point, I was working three part-time jobs even as I was also a full-time student, and Deanne was working nearly full-time when she went back to school to finish her B.S. as I worked on my doctorate. And we had two young children.
So, why is acquiring a degree such a huge mountain to climb, especially when considering the clergy? I offer the following possibilities, along with a few recommendations.
1) Not academically gifted. I don't want to make too much of this, but some folks have a lot of trouble grinding out the book work, the papers, etc. I believe that most people of average intelligence can do it, but not everybody can bang out the academic work easily while working at other things. I was lucky: going back to school to get a doctorate was a long process, but I found going to school again far easier than dealing with the full-time pastorate. We could offer ministerial candidates struggling with schoolwork some adult tutoring, I think, especially in the field of academic and professional writing.
2) Waiting too long to climb the mountain. The best time to knock out a Bachelor's degree is when you're young. It opens a lot of doors and you can always add an advanced degree later. But when you're approaching middle age with a large and expensive family and a fair amount of personal consumer debt, the prospect of taking a pay cut to attain a degree is daunting. Still, we sometimes have to ask ourselves some pointed questions about the lifestyle we have come to expect for ourselves. How much do you really need to live on while you work on that degree? Are there things you can economize on or sell? Deanne liquidated a 401(k) to start her Master's degree. That means her retirement is less than it would be, but it also means she's not paying on her degree any more. What are your assets and long-term plans? Are they realistic? How committed is your family to your plans? Getting good advice from trusted mentors and qualified financial planners can help make your dreams come true.
3) Taking too long to finish. Once you start a degree, you need to grind it out to the finish. Changing majors, changing advisors, "exploring/finding yourself," and trying to do a course or two a semester just multiples the pain. Get it over with. It's easier to pay off a finished degree while earning a full-time salary than spending years in poverty trying to get to the end (and still have too much debt).
4) Insisting on the high-priced spread. The cachet that certain institutions provide is rarely worth the price they charge. If your sheepskin reads "Harvard Law," then you're probably well set up; if it reads "Harvard School of Education" or "Harvard School of Journalism," you've paid too much for too little. And if all you want is a Bachelor's degree so you can go to seminary, then community colleges and non-Big-Ten state schools offer better value for your money.
5) Obtaining degrees of dubious worth. A young friend of mine was told that he could easily gain admission to a doctoral program in Byzantine Studies -- but when he finished it, there would be no jobs. He also had a great interest in computer science/info tech, got a degree in that, and he's now the IT Director for a major non-profit. Sometimes, you need to be that savvy. This, of course, is irrelevant for the clergy, where any kind of Bachelor's can get you into seminary, which is whole 'nother world.
6) Taking on too much debt. Unless you've got a good deal and you're going to get through it as quickly as possible, you ought to think about working as much as you can while earning your diploma. You especially don't want to go to a high-priced institution and get a non-marketable degree and dawdle along the way. You may be paying student loan payments all the way to retirement.
7) Not realizing that Course of Study is just a non-degree degree. If you're going into the UM clergy and you don't think you can do the seminary route, we provide a Course of Study to qualify you for full-time Local Pastor Status. And if you complete it, you can get a shorter Master's and qualify for elder's orders, if that's what you want. But what I see is an awful lot of Local Pastors who just piddle around with the minimum required on the COS. They're treating it as if it were Continuing Education, rather than a basic requirement. They take too long and don't treat it seriously. And so they foreclose certain avenues of advancement they could qualify for, besides spending years of aggravation trying to reach the end. Get 'er done! is still the best advice I can give people. And if you need help, ask other clergy -- particularly those who are good at schooly stuff -- for help, so you can take on a bigger load and make better progress.