- Tom Marshall
The Modern Bible College: How to Get an Online Theology Degree
Updated: Feb 22
Author: Tom Marshall, Academic Dean, Maritime Christian College
A Typical Case Study
Recently Emily asked rhetorically, “Why do we allow an 18-year-old to make financial decisions when they have no clue what they are doing?” Emily is now 27 and amid paying back her student loans. She is an example of many of today’s young people working to pay off a university education. In her case she attended the University of Maine (Stephen King’s alma mater). Her brothers, on the other hand, chose to attend a junior college before completing their last couple years at Northern Illinois University. All three received their degrees and are working in their selected fields: records information management, engineering, and accounting.
To manage costs Emily’s brothers moved in with their grandparents while she lived all four years in the dorms. She cut living expenses by working as a resident assistant for three of her four years. The boys, on the other hand, did not pay rent (grandma would not accept it) but they were expected to run errands, clean, and help around the house and yard.
There are plusses for on-campus and off-campus life: on-campus life equals camaraderie with fellow residents and co-workers, meal plans, and sports facilities, while off-campus equals free meals with the grandparents, no obnoxious neighbours, and no distractions. The minuses include the following: on-campus means dealing with obnoxious neighbours, need for on-campus employment to cut costs, and constant distractions, while off-campus means transportation issues, no social life, and the same restaurants week after week with the grandparents. These are a few plusses and minuses for each option. The big question becomes do you want to pay the $10,000 per year for room and board or deal with relatives?
In each case Emily and her brothers made their own choices. Emily wanted the social interaction for an on-campus education while her brothers were willing to forego the social interaction to save money. As of this writing Emily’s younger brother (the accountant) has paid off his undergrad and grad school loans. Her older brother (the engineer) will have his loans paid off this year—for both his undergrad and grad school loans. Emily, on the other hand, (records information manager) still has years of payments ahead of her because she chose not to accelerate her payments nor cut costs by living with her grandparents.
This leads back to Emily’s rhetorical question: “Why do we allow an 18-year-old to make financial decisions when they have no clue what they are doing?”
Even though Emily knew her older brother cut costs by attending the cheaper junior college (Rock Valley College) rather than NIU and boarding with his grandparents, this did not dissuade her from choosing the higher cost option. She paid a premium for in-person interaction of a university campus.
Cost is probably the largest determining factor between on-campus and off-campus education. Room and board make up around half of the costs of an education and if a student chooses to not live on-campus they can achieve quite a savings. This concept of savings leads to the online option as a means of acquiring an education or at least supplementing it with a course or two.
A Change in the Wind
In May of 2020 Covid-19 forced many North American universities and colleges to shift to some form of online presence due to the large outbreak of illness. The subsequent year and a half changed the way schools delivered their courses. Online became necessary. Before Covid-19’s disruptive arrival a trend was already underway in online education. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) keeps track of all education trends within the United States and other nations. One trend they studied is the rise of students taking online undergraduate classes.
A report revealed that the percentage of students taking one or more online undergraduate classes increased from 15.6% in 2004 to 43.1% in 2016 (Snyder, Brey, & Dillow, 2018).
One impact of Covid-19 was its ability to accelerate online education across the board. Students needed to complete their school year while new students would be starting university or grad school in the Fall. Adapt or die became the new reality for most institutions.
Online education became a viable option. Universities discovered they could provide distance education while students realized they could save money by choosing an online option.
Undergraduate and Graduate Online Theology Degrees
The trend toward an online undergraduate degree is growing. The NCES reports, “The percentage of undergraduate students taking fully online degree programs increased from 3.8% in 2008 to 10.8% in 2016.”
Undergraduate students are considering cost over social interaction in a market where student debt has skyrocketed. With the impact of Covid-19 upon online courses, universities and colleges are increasing their course offerings in a new format and students are responding in kind.
Maritime Christian College (MCC) shifted to an online format in 2019 to reach a mature audience for its disciple making certificates. Covid-19 did not create chaos for MCC as it was already in transition toward an online presence based upon their research and planning. In January 2023, MCC will be offering an online theology degree at the graduate level: Master of Arts in Disciple Making and Ministry Leadership.
The decision to offer a master’s degree was based upon the number of current students over the age of 30 enrolled in its courses. While 18-year-old enrolment in ministry related fields has dropped in recent years, mature students and second career students have increased in the same ministry related courses. Second, accreditation is essential to moving forward and MCC’s best option for accreditation is toward a master’s degree.
Returning to our case study, Emily attended Simmons University in Boston after completing her undergraduate degree. She selected a master’s in library science but completed it all online. Her perspective had changed after calculating her budget for living in Boston verses Charlottetown.
This was a blow for Emily at first because she enjoyed her U. Maine experience of living on-campus all four years, “I like the accountability of going to class and I thrive best in an environment when I can be a class clown, which is hard in online environments.” But after considering her budget and the costs for a graduate degree she concluded, “Online was handy because I could work at Starbucks pretty well full time and do school full time, and not move because the cost of living in Boston.”
“A survey showed that 52% of graduate students in the U.S. found their online college-level education to provide a better learning experience than their college-level classroom education (Duffin, 2019).”
Online learning also appeals to graduate students who study toward a master or doctorate degree. In a survey conducted by Learning House, Inc. and Aslanian Market Research (2018), it was found that out of 1,500 graduate online students, 86% believed that the value they obtained from their online degree equaled or exceeded what they paid for.
For Emily the cost and convenience were important in her decision to attend graduate school online. The same would apply to any other online degree. For an undergraduate student, they need to consider either in-person or an on-line education—students must decide if cost and convenience outweigh an in-person experience. For the graduate student searching for an online theology degree cost and convenience are the motivating factors. Online has become the norm.
“According to the report of Snyder, Brey, & Dillow (2018), the percentage of graduate students who took entirely online graduate (postgraduate) degree programs has increased from 6.1% in 2008 to 27.3% in 2016.”
Employers are also accepting online education degrees if the type of education received is theoretical. Doctors and engineers, on the other hand, are still required to have in-person courses due to the tactile nature of their profession. The National Center for Education Statistics stated, “61% of employers believe an online education is comparable to on-campus education.”
Technology Leads to an Online Environment
Whether they realize it or not students are making use of technology to complete most of their courses. For example, “In a survey, it was found that 67% of American college students used their mobile devices to complete all or some of their course-related activities.” In effect the iPhone and Androids have created a mobile classroom and online learning is becoming the way of the future. The university or college which adapts their course offerings and delivery systems to fit a mobile phone user’s preference will have a market edge.
Another study found that students believe mobile devices provide them with easier access to coursework. They also make for improved communication with other students and instructors, as well as help enhance their work quality and knowledge in their field of study (Seilhamer, et.al., 2018). In this regard, facilitators can engage more learners when they make their courses, materials, and activities accessible through a mobile phone or tablet.
Technology has allowed for an online theology degree to be possible for mature students who have full-time employment and are settled in a location away from the college’s physical footprint. With an online presence a potential student from a foreign country can work toward an online degree when cost restrictions prohibit their ability to attend in-person courses.
Accessibility within an online environment allows a school to reach more students within their current context where they can apply their course material to their own setting. Within the context of ministry, foreign churches would save money to send a potential church leader to the institution for training with the expectation the student will return and bless the congregation. Often, though, a foreign student from a poorer economic background will often be influenced by the wealth and lifestyle of the institution’s country. Following four years of education the student often becomes acclimated to a higher economic culture and might not want to return to their native country where earnings and cultural practices are less than the country where they studied.
An online program allows foreign students to learn and apply their training immediately within their native country. This is good stewardship and extends the cause of Christ around the world.
Covid-19 forced many institutions to rethink how they provide education to their students. For some schools who have read the signs of the times, online courses are a matter of course, but for those schools entrenched within an in-person mode of education Covid-19 provided a wake-up call to the future of education.
Undergraduate students must decide if they want to cut costs by pursuing an online theology degree or pay a premium for in-person instruction. Either one provides a degree employers accept when hiring.
Technology has enabled students to complete most of their schoolwork on their phones and indicates an online mode of learning. The question is whether universities will leverage this mobile trend by innovating new ways to incorporate course work via iPhones and Androids.
Graduate education has embraced the online mode of education because it allows for the student to work full-time and remain in their hometown without moving and disrupting their families.
Maritime Christian College is offering a masters in Disciple Making and Ministry Leadership for their online theology degree to increase disciple making within Canada and around the world.
For more information please visit: https://www.mccpei.com.
. “50 Online Education Statistics: 2021/2022 data on Higher Learning & Corporate Training.” 2020. Research.com. June 30, 2020. Https:/research.com/education/online-educationstatistics#TOC1. Research.com used information from Digest of Education Statistics 2016: 52nd Edition (970 pages). The National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017094.pdf . Ibid. . Ibid. . Ibid. . Ibid. . Ibid. . Ibid.