Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Economics of Vocations

I apologize for the pause in postings again. My father is recovering from a rather serious illness, and I was with him at the hospital a couple of times last week.

I received a phone call from an old friend of the community yesterday. He mentioned to me that he recently began serving the Laboure Society, a group dedicated to assisting those who would like to discern a calling to religious life or the priesthood, but are saddled with prohibitive educational debt. Kudos to those serving this worthy cause!

Religious communities love to welcome persons with good educations, of course, but in recent decades the risk is precisely that someone will join, get huge debts paid off by the community, then leave for a career. While this is a sad and too-often repeated scenario, the dynamic is perfectly understandable. Someone leaving college with a debt of $40,000 or grad school with a debt of $80,000+ is in a bind. If the degree is in the humanities especially, one can hardly find a job for which one is qualified that will pay back the debt in any reasonable time. On the other hand, humanities degrees are attractive for religious communities, and many in the humanities are drawn to community life and service by dint of their professional interest and training. While it is tempting to point fingers at those who apparently abuse the system and get religious communities to pay off the debt, we should be aware that there is a huge temptation to 'discern' a religious calling when one is in the bind described above. Someone with a Masters in English, for example, can take a job at a bank and earn real money or wallow in academia or teach in primary school. Either way, you have to fork over $250-$400 a month (or more) to the government or private agency that financed the loan. This kind of burden must be a factor in any life decision at that point: who wouldn't think of throwing it all on God? And who wouldn't have second thoughts once the albatross of debt starts to fade into the receding horizon of the past?

Behind this all is a bit of a conspiracy theory I have held for some time. The astonishing rise in the cost of a college education is often explained by rising costs of endowments and what not. Well, maybe so. On the other hand, the government is happy to toss out loans with more-or-less guaranteed returns in interest over many years. So colleges have a certain freedom to increase tuition, figuring that the government will float the cash and then force young graduates to enter the rat race of debt relief by assuming the patriotic duty (as articulated from the demand side by President Bush) of frantic production to keep the American machine lubricated. I haven't seen anyone tie this reality into the dearth of religious vocations, but surely this is a huge factor.

I was very blessed to have gone to school on a scholarship that paid almost the entirety of tuition, room and board. This left me free to pursue first the artistic life of a gigging musician and composer, then the poverty of religious life. Most 23-year-olds today do not have this option. It is any wonder that music is rotten and vocations are down?


Edith OSB said...

I'm sorry to hear about your father; I hope it is doing better. You are both in my prayers.

The economics have a number of effects - some small or new communities might not be able to take someone with a large debt - and the discerner may know it, and not even visit or consider some types of vowed commitment.

I was triply blest. First, I learned to do statistical analysis, and that made it possible to have research assistant jobs after my first year; it paid my tuition and most of my expenses; I only had a few thousand dollars of debt. Second, members of my parish were so supportive of vocations that they took up a collection and knocked a big hole in the debt. Third, my community was wise: they paid the debt outright, with the understanding that if I did not take final vows, I would repay the community. That might not have been legally enforceable.

However, if I had a huge debt, the idea of leaving the monastery with nothing AND having a large debt would have been daunting.

Anonymous said...

"The astonishing rise in the cost of a college education is often explained by rising costs of endowments and what not. Well, maybe so. On the other hand, the government is happy to toss out loans with more-or-less guaranteed returns in interest over many years."

It seems that a Catholic university would be hit economically by the fact that there are fewer religious teaching (presumably members of the order running the institution, and working for free, as it were), thereby creating a need to hire laymen to teach at considerably greater expense.


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