MLC’s Philosophy of Financial Assistance and Student Indebtedness

WE ARE GRATEFUL. Martin Luther College (MLC) is deeply grateful for the continued support of WELS. The WELS operating subsidy, which comes from WELS Congregational Mission Offerings (CMO), funds about 17% of MLC’s budget. We are also grateful for the gifts that come directly to MLC from foundations and individuals within WELS.

The blessing of this subsidy and these gifts, coupled with careful stewardship by the MLC Governing Board and administration, allows MLC to keep costs relatively low without sacrificing quality in our educational offerings or the student-life experience on campus. MLC regularly ranks at or near the top of “Best Value” college lists, and the average debt for MLC graduates is several thousand dollars below the national average for graduates of other four-year private colleges.

WE ARE CONCERNED. Though our student debt figure runs lower than average, it is still a considerable cause for concern and prayer. About 75 percent of MLC students graduate with debt. The debt for that 75 percent averages $27,000. If two of our graduates marry, the debt can double. Many of our graduates, therefore, enter their public ministries with a challenging burden—a burden exacerbated by the lower lifetime earning potential of called workers compared to college graduates in other fields.

This financial burden has a negative effect on recruitment. In a competitive college marketplace, we are at a disadvantage in rankings that use a return-on-investment framework. According to a 2019 Sallie Mae report, most high school students and their parents list college cost, often including consideration of return on investment, as the most important factor in their college choice.

While we remain convinced that the value of ministerial training—and the blessings of a life dedicated to gospel ministry—far outweigh financial considerations, we still must admit that the debt load carried by many MLC graduates likely has a significant negative impact on student recruitment.

WE ARE RESPONDING. To reduce the debt load of our graduates and to assure that nothing hampers the recruiting of future gospel ministers, the MLC Governing Board and administration invite all our partners throughout the synod to join us in addressing this challenge as wisely and aggressively as possible.  Under God’s blessing, we seek to:

  • Increase gifts to financial aid.

We will cultivate even more generous foundation grants, individual gifts, and special congregational contributions, such as those facilitated by the Congregational Partner Grant Program (CPGP). Such grants and gifts will significantly increase our ability to award merit-based and especially need-based financial aid, allowing us to offer more competitive financial aid packages to prospective students.

  • Enhance student financial literacy.

We will expand the current excellent program that teaches students wise stewardship of their financial resources. The MLC program, established before it was common practice at other college campuses, offers students guidance about summer employment, limiting working hours during the academic semesters, and sensible budgeting in a consumer-mentality culture. Recent research by the Trellis Company confirms the positive impact of financial counseling, and all such growth provides a blessing long after graduation.

  • Encourage family financial support.

We will encourage parents to help fund their children’s college education in ways consistent with their resources. In a growing trend, more parents are asking their children to bear an increasing percentage of college costs. While having students contribute to their college education does foster maturity, parents might not realize that student employment comes nowhere close to covering the full cost of college, and that government support has shifted almost entirely from grants to loans. When parents help pay for college, they provide a double blessing: reducing their children’s debt load and assisting their children to make a stronger beginning in public ministry.

  • Urge students to utilize government loans judiciously.

We will help students evaluate the long-term ramifications of student loans so that they don’t borrow too quickly or carelessly. We will also assist them with loan repayment options. When we combine greater financial literacy with increased financial aid and additional parental support, we will be well on our way toward fewer and smaller student loans.

OUR GOAL: Under God’s blessing, we would like to cut student indebtedness in half in ten years. The current ratio of debt to starting salary is 92 percent.[1] The goal is to reduce that ratio to 46 percent in ten years.[2]

In 2020 dollars, a $1,500 per year increase in each of three areas—student contribution, family contribution, and financial aid—would result in an $18,000 decrease in the average debt over four years. That would more than meet this goal! The challenge is not as significant as it may first appear.

OUR PRAYER: In this, as in all things, we ask God to help us. May our efforts ease the financial burden our graduates carry, remove hindrances to ministry recruitment, and raise an ever larger corps of Christian witnesses who are qualified to meet WELS ministry needs.


[1] This ratio lists the average indebtedness of the 2019 MLC graduate ($27,196) as a percentage of the 2019-2020 WELS salary matrix column C with 0 years of experience ($29,511).

A Prayer From President Zarling

2020 Thalassa Winner

Congratulations to the 2020 Thalassa Prize winner, Micah Otto ’19. Micah served in Southeast Asia for one semester. He explains: “We did mostly friendship evangelism – fostering meaningful relationships in an effort to let our light shine, with the end goal of building self-sustaining churches.” The pandemic cut his ministry short, and he does not think he will be able to return. MLC’s International Services Office awarded Micah $1,000, half of which he designated to a Southeast Asia mission. This is the 14th annual Thalassa Prize.


The God She Thought She Knew

This is Bella—Bella the Buddhist.

Bella was dressed up as the Devil for our Halloween party at my apartment in Southeast Asia.

“ . . . and that’s why God’s love is so amazing!” I said amid our formerly secular conversation between sips of punch.

We were hosting this party just to make friends; but of course, it’s pretty much inevitable that He will get brought up in conversation if you talk to one of us Christians long enough.

Bella looked at me puzzled, her red fabric horns bobbing as she cocked her head.

“But . . . doesn’t your god send people to hell? That doesn’t seem very loving.”

She continued to describe the god she thought she knew—a god who was hateful, distant, and quick to hold a grudge—a god she didn’t want to believe in. Bella the Buddhist had been deceived by the very one she was dressed up as that evening.

“I don’t want to believe in that god either, Bella. Now let me tell you about the God I do believe in . . .

. . . about the God who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love,

. . . about the God who gave me everything and refuses to turn His back on me even when I fail to love Him in return,

. . . about Jesus, who died so that freedom from sin, death, and the Devil wouldn’t have to be earned, but freely given right into our hands.

Tell me about the gods you don’t believe in, and I’ll tell you about mine—I’ll tell you about grace.”

Later, Bella opened up a Bible on our coffee table. We turned to John.

“For God so loved the world . . .”

Rev. Mark Zarling’s Retirement from MLC as President

Rev. Mark Zarling, president of Martin Luther College from 2007 to 2020, is retiring this summer.

During President Zarling’s tenure, God has blessed the college in countless ways.

The campus saw the construction of beautiful new facilities funded by God’s people: Chapel of the Christ, the Early Childhood Learning Center, a baseball field, and a soccer pitch.

The academic catalog expanded to include majors in early childhood education and special education, many four-year secondary education majors, and minors in urban ministry and Chinese. The graduate program added two new degrees: Master of Science in Educational Administration and Master of Arts in Theological Studies. And continuing education offerings expanded tremendously, including New Teacher Induction, new certifications, and a full catalog of on-campus, online, and on-location professional development options.

President Zarling’s keen sense of vision led the campus family through two strategic plans, two accreditations, a Master Site Plan, and a Master Staffing Plan. He put the spotlight on lowering student debt, broadening international services, expanding experiential learning, and recruiting new students not merely to fill current vacancies but to prepare for new ministries still in development. He also traveled extensively, serving as a warm and sincere ambassador all over the synod.

Through all these changes, he kept the campus focused on the mission statement: “To train a corps of Christian witnesses who are qualified to meet the ministry needs of the WELS and who are competent to proclaim the Word of God faithfully and in accord with the Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord.”

Faculty, staff, and synod leaders have called President Zarling a man of faith, a pastor-administrator, a humble visionary, a Christ-like leader, and MLC’s spiritual compass. He spoke God’s promises in the hallways, prayed with colleagues in their offices, and uplifted the college family with his “Letters from Home” chapel messages.

“President Zarling has left an impression on Martin Luther College,” said WELS President Mark Schroeder. “He has worked tirelessly to ensure that our WELS College of Ministry faithfully carries out its purpose. He has personally guided and shaped hundreds if not thousands of students. And through his leadership he has instilled in our synod’s members a love for and a confidence in Martin Luther College.”

To MLC students past, present, and future, President Emeritus Zarling offers this encouragement: “The apostle tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Live daily with eyes on Jesus—and the only way to keep eyes on him is to stay with the Scriptures that reveal him. Make time daily to prayerfully read the Spirit’s inspired words that you may build up your faith. As Jude 20-21 tells us, But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.

Mark and his wife, Colette, are moving to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, this summer and are planning road trips to the East and West Coasts to see their children and grandchildren.

Communications of congratulations may be mailed to 2631 College Street, Manitowoc WI 54220.

Showcasing International Students

STEM & M at MLC