They Want to Become Nuns and Priests. Student Debt Holds Them Back.

It wasn’t until after college that Kendra Baker began to consider becoming a nun. She had been raised a Roman Catholic, and after her father fell from the roof of their home, suffering life-threatening injuries, her family called a priest to come and pray with them. A few hours later, her father opened his eyes.

“He’s relearned to walk, talk, drive — he can eat normally,” Ms. Baker, 25, said. “And doctors had told us to prepare for a funeral.”

That wasn’t the only experience that nudged Ms. Baker, who, after graduating from Western Washington University in 2021, moved to Seattle and started to feel a “gentle prompting” toward religious life. “Not God’s booming voice saying, ‘Kendra, go to the convent now.’ But just very gentle,” she said.

After much thought and research, Ms. Baker found a religious community that she felt aligned with her interests in both contemplative spirituality and active service, and she was soon accepted as a candidate with the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. Only one thing was preventing her from joining: her student loan debt.

People wishing to enter religious life in the Catholic tradition are typically required to pay off all their debts to prepare themselves to take a vow of poverty, and others living in religious communities usually don’t earn an income or own assets, preventing them from paying any debts they accrued as laypeople. If they’re among the 20 percent of Americans with undergraduate degrees who have student loan debt, it can pose significant challenges.

A report from the National Religious Vocation Conference signaled the alarm more than a decade ago with data that confirmed that “educational debt had become a deterrent for many discerning a religious vocation,” pointing to factors such as the ballooning cost of tuition and wage stagnation. Since then, the average student loan debt in the United States has grown steadily, reaching an average of about $30,000 in 2023.

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