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    Accrediting for Dummies

    The standards, meaning, and importance of accreditation.

    by Kathy Furlong

    Explore a seminary or graduate school's website, and typically there's a page that touches on accreditation: a list of organizations by whom the school is accredited, or perhaps a statement that the school is not accredited, with an explanation or rationale for why it has chosen not to be. But for students investigating which school to attend, this could be unfamiliar territory. What does accreditation mean, exactly? And how important is it to ministry?

    Many seminaries and graduate schools engaged in theological education are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) as well as by regional organizations. According to its website, www.ats.edu, ATS promotes "the improvement and enhancement of theological schools to the benefit of communities of faith and the broader public" through periodic reviews of each school in its membership, numerous initiatives and projects, publications and other resources. ATS functions as a peer enhancement and accountability organization for the 250 schools in its membership, and it is recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

    Any comparison of accredited and unaccredited seminaries invites the temptation to contrast the best of one group with the worst of the other, but it's not that simple, says Leland Eliason, executive director and provost of Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and past member and chair of ATS's Commission of Accreditation. "There are a few outstanding seminaries whose leaders have not sought accreditation, and there are some accredited seminaries whose leaders are implementing the bare minimum when it comes to structuring their programs," he says. "Having said that, in the great majority of cases, seminaries whose leaders have done the hard work of meeting accreditation standards, and have underwritten their budgets to upgrade programs and paid the fees for accreditation, lead schools that are constantly improving."

    Accreditation standards, such as those adopted by ATS, address such areas as curricula, faculty, spiritual formation practices, evaluation criteria, library resources, long range planning, governance, and financial soundness. Noting that these are standards every seminary—accredited or not—should meet, Eliason points out that "seeking accreditation simply says, 'Our school will be accountable to a peer review process to ensure that we are achieving desired outcomes in each of these areas.'" These standards, he adds, also push schools to meet goals they've set for themselves—and work on the areas where they see the need for improvement—within their chosen theological and ecclesiological framework.

    "We live in a world where legitimacy, recognition, and high standards are demonstrated through some process of accreditation," Eliason says, pointing to the requirements in such fields as medicine, education and counseling. In this context, he argues, ministry leaders benefit from pursuing degrees from accredited seminaries. "To be sure, graduating from an accredited seminary does not assure effectiveness for ministry," he says. "But within the vast majority of cultures in the twenty-first century, accreditation grants an initial stature that reduces doubts and increases confidence."

    There are also practical reasons to consider an accredited seminary, Eliason says. First, only seminaries that are accredited by ATS are eligible for federally guaranteed student loans. In addition, graduating from an accredited seminary gives students greater flexibility if they choose to pursue further graduate study. Not all institutions will accept degrees or coursework from an unaccredited school.

    Why Not Seek Accreditation?