A Renewed Pledge for Student Support

November 20, 2019
HDS Students
HDS students Steven Fisher and Abhijith Ravinutala / Photo: Rose Lincoln

As students face new financial pressures, HDS marshals new resources to meet the challenge.

Space is sacred to Jarred Batchelor Hamilton. At HDS, the Master of Divinity candidate studies places that enable people to connect with one another and with the transcendent—both inside and outside of traditional houses of worship. He says the work is “a perfect marriage of my two passions: religion and art.”

As a student from a low-income family, however, space is also one of the greatest challenges to Batchelor-Hamilton’s dream of pursuing a PhD in religion and a career as a teacher and scholar. That’s because the cost of housing in Boston is among the highest of any city in the world. Even though a scholarship from HDS covers 100 percent of Batchelor-Hamilton’s tuition—and even though he works throughout the school year—he still incurs thousands of dollars in debt just to cover living expenses.

“At HDS, I learn in the same spaces as Emerson, Tillich, Karen King, Cornel West, and many other legendary scholars and thinkers,” he says. “Unfortunately, the same combination of history and excellence that makes this the best place to study religion also makes it expensive becauses so many people want to be here.”

With nearly 90 percent of master’s degree candidates receiving scholarship aid in AY 2018–19, Harvard Divinity School has one of the most generous financial aid programs in higher education. But, as students face new financial pressures, there is a need for HDS to marshal new resources to support them. In this way, the School hopes to recruit a new generation of scholars, spiritual leaders, and religiously literate professionals from communities around the world—and to enable graduates to bring their knowledge and education to the places where it is most needed.

A Perfect Financial Storm

Beth Flaherty, HDS’s director of financial aid, keeps a watchful eye on student finances. Lately, what she sees concerns her. She says that students increasingly arrive at HDS with increased educational debt both from their undergraduate years and from previous graduate study.

“Many students have at least some debt from college,” she says. “That’s always been the case. But in recent years more of them have tens or, in a handful of cases, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in educational loans.”

Students Enjoying the Yard
HDS students deep in discussion on the Campus Green. / Photo: Rose Lincoln

The data support Flaherty’s observations. In 2018, U.S. News & World Report reported that “College graduates from the class of 2017 who took out student loans borrowed nearly $30,000 on average... around $9,000 more than borrowers from the class of 2007 had to shoulder—representing a more than 40 percent increase in the amount students borrow.”

At the same time, costs beyond tuition—room, board, and living expenses—have increased sharply. A recent study by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that Massachusetts had the third-highest rental costs in the nation. Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that the availability of affordable housing was down across the state, while the number of rent-burdened households was up. “Even when HDS covers 100 percent of a student’s tuition,” Flaherty says, “they often add thousands of dollars to their debt burden simply to pay the rent.”

To make matters worse, federal student loan limits have stagnated and loan subsidies for graduate students have all but disappeared, raising the cost of borrowing. For many, it’s a perfect financial storm.

“Collectively, these recent changes have resulted in a significant increase in the cost of a master’s degree,” Flaherty says. “While some of our students can make it with little or no loan debt, we are seeing a rise in overall debt levels. Those who are borrowing are often borrowing as much as they can.”

Increased Support for Students in Need

The cost of attendance is a challenge not only for students who want to enroll at HDS but also to the School’s continued leadership in the study of religion, according to Director of Admissions Angela Counts. HDS competes for top talent with schools like Yale, Duke, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the University of Chicago. All those institutions have robust financial aid programs—and all are in areas where a student’s dollar goes farther.

“Along with faculty research, the excellence of our students—and their impact as graduates—is what put HDS at the top of the study of religion,” she says. “But we lose students every year to peer institutions who take aim at our top applicants, increase their financial aid packages, and operate in an environment where living costs are lower.”

To stay on top, HDS is revamping its long-standing commitment to those most vulnerable to financial pressures. Counts says that, moving forward, the School will increase its support for the neediest students.

“In recognition of the financial challenges that many of our students face, HDS will put more of our resources into our need-based financial aid program,” she says. “Our goal is to increase the minimum tuition grant and to offer more need-based stipends to help with living expenses as well.”

In practice, the new policy means more students will qualify for more financial aid. Moreover, every student who qualifies for need-based aid will get a grant that covers at least 75 percent of their tuition—all while HDS continues to award scholarships based on merit as well. The goal, Counts says, is both to provide more support to the neediest students and to make HDS more attractive for top candidates.

“Strengthening our support is the right thing to do,” she points out, “but it’s also just necessary if HDS is going to continue to recruit and educate the most talented, devoted students.”

Fundraisers Focus on Financial Aid

Just as the increase in need-based aid is essential, so is the need for new resources to support it. Additionally, as the School enrolls more students from outside the United States, there is a need for funds that go beyond tuition and basic living expenses. International students need to travel back and forth from their home countries. Participants in HDS’s extensive field education program need grants for placements overseas. Budding scholars need support for research in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

To enable students from around the world to come to HDS—and to make the most of their experience once they are here—the School is refocusing its fundraising this year on scholarship and grant aid. Current-use gifts for financial aid will be sought in addition to new endowed scholarship funds. Signaling the importance of this initiative, all gifts to the HDS Fund in fiscal year 2020 will go to strengthen the future of the financial aid program and provide support for students in need.

“We are excited to contribute to the School’s highest priority, and we feel this is something alumni will definitely relate to and get behind,” says Anissa Conner, associate director for alumni relations.

HDS supporters can also consider their estate plans and designate a gift specifically for financial aid in their wills.

“Just as students today—and yesterday—have benefited from the generous bequests of alumni and friends that were made decades ago, new bequests will support future students in need,” says Conner.

Dean David N. Hempton calls on the School’s donors to join in the effort to provide support to students—and by extension to all those whose lives their HDS experience will enable them to touch.

“Harvard Divinity School began as a small seminary for liberal Protestant ministers, mostly from New England,” he says. “Today, it aspires to be a truly global, multireligious institution, drawing students from—and contributing graduates to—countries around the world. Amid all this change, one thing remains constant: the need for support from the School’s alumni and friends. Now more than ever, HDS aspires to make a world of difference. So now more than ever, we need our friends to make a world of difference in the lives of our students.”