Faced with a harsh job market and inspired to action by the recent spate of white-collar crimes, students nationwide are flocking to graduate programs in religious education, often in record numbers. Many of the nation's divinity schools, including top programs at Harvard and Yale, have posted increases of 10 percent and higher for applicants to their fall incoming classes — returns that would draw the envy of any bearish investor.
"The admission pool definitely spiked in this last year, and the economy probably is part of it," said Harold Attridge, dean of Yale Divinity School, where a 13 percent increase in applications has led to the largest applicant pool in the school's history.
A similar trend has been observed at Harvard Divinity School, where applications for the fall semester are up 11 percent, according to Jonathan Beasley, communications officer for HDS.
Though Attridge identified declining job prospects as a potential motivator for students to continue their education, he pointed to a crop of contemporary moral and religious issues as a key influence on students seeking study religion.
Among those relatively new issues are global climate change and "gross immorality in the financial sector," Attridge said, which may have inspired students to take a more spiritual approach toward community service.
"There are questions about whether the fundamental moral fiber of the country is corroded," Attridge said.
The explanation resonates strongly with Stephen Blackmer, who will begin studying for a master of divinity at YDS this fall. Blackmer, 53, had worked in conservation and sustainable development for nearly 30 years before answering a call to join the ministry.
Blackmer said his experience has taught him that the main obstacle to slowing climate change is not technological or economic, but spiritual.
"Climate change is in effect a spiritual problem, because we've developed the technologies to protect the world from climate change, but not the wisdom to use them," he said.
Blackmer, who said he hopes to join an "environmental ministry" after graduating, said the slumping economy made his decision to attend divinity school easier.
"If things were going gangbusters and there were opportunities all over the place, I might not have looked to the ministry at this time," Blackmer said.
But for other students, the impact of the economy has been more direct. Smoot Carter, 23, will enroll at YDS right out of college after rejections from business schools stymied his career plans. He hopes that after his two-year program, he'll be able to pursue a career in public service.
"The reason I applied to divinity school was because the market wasn't providing the opportunities to enter into the business field, while at the same time the business schools were pursuing students with more experience," Carter said. "I was kind of stuck in the middle."
Like Blackmer, Carter said the economy ripened a desire he had to pursue a religious education, which had been an interest of his for some time but had not been considered a serious option.
"This is the only time in my life when I feel I can pursue theological or spiritual studies," Carter said. "The market has directed me toward pursuing opportunities like this."
Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the 253-member Association of Theological Schools, said stories like Carter's and Blackmer's are becoming more common. He drew a parallel between the current economic downturn and recent crises such as the dot-com bust and the attacks of Sept. 11, which were also followed by increased applications to divinity schools.
"When the economy crashes as hard as it did, it invites a lot of people to ask, 'Are our values in the right place? Do I give myself to the pursuit of money, or do I give myself to the pursuit of moral values?'" Aleshire said.
Though Attridge called the increased interest in divinity school "a very encouraging sign," the record number of applicants was followed by the highest matriculation rate at YDS in decades, leading to over-enrollment by about 10 percent for the incoming class.
"It's going to be tight, but we'll make it," Attridge said.
Still, Attridge and Aleshire take a positive outlook to the future of theological education, and both said they expect the applications to continue to rise.
"We're at a cultural moment when there's a lot of concern about the common good," Aleshire said. "Religion is a social force."
*This story was filed by UWIRE, which offers reporting from more than 800 colleges and universities worldwide. Read more at www.uwire.com.