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 seminaryaccredited or notshould 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 themselvesand work on the areas where they see the need for improvementwithin 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?
There are valid reasons for choosing to attend one of the excellent unaccredited seminaries. Schools that choose not to seek accreditation frequently do so because they wish to pursue non-traditionalmodels of education, such as full distance learning degree programs. One such school is Columbia Evangelical Seminary, based in Buckley, Washington, which offers degrees through a self-paced mentorship study programin which students work one-on-one with faculty to develop a rigorous, specific course of studywith no residency requirement.
Rick Walston, Ph.D., the president of Columbia Evangelical and author of Walston's Guide to Christian Distance Learning: Earning Degrees Non-Traditionally, suggests that students who are considering unaccredited degree programs first make sure their employers or denominations do not require the degree to be earned from an accredited school. For students who are also thinking about later graduate studysuch as a Doctor of Ministry or Ph.D.it's also worth investigating whether the schools they are considering for later study require all degrees to be earned from accredited institutions. If not, and, "if the unaccredited schools that they earn their degrees from are legitimate, credible, and academically sound, then their 'unaccredited degrees' will be just fine for them," he says in a Coffee Talk article on Columbia Evangelical's website, www.columbiaseminary.edu.
In addition to having greater flexibility with non-traditional programming, Walston points out that unaccredited seminaries are more affordable: the cost of a degree may be anywhere from one-half to one-tenth the cost of a degree from an accredited school, according to Walston's Guide. In fact, he argues on his school's website, "for many thousands of peopleboth in ministry and in other fieldssome unaccredited schools have provided a sound source through which they have been able to earn their degrees in their particular fields, both for professional advancements and for personal achievements."
Having said that, Walston does caution students to carefully investigate any unaccredited schools they may be considering, with particular attention to the quality of their academic programs and their integrity. "There are some very good, non-traditional schools that are fully legal and well-regarded, but simply not accredited by one of the recognized accrediting associations," Walston says on the accreditation page of Columbia Evangelical's website. "The good ones will be open and honest about their lack of accreditation."
Another reason to carefully evaluate an unaccredited school is that it may lack some important dimension for ministry preparation, Leland Eliason, executive director and provost of Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says, such as adequate facilities or finances, faculty with doctorates in their fields of study, or adequate library resources. "Can you learn a lot in such settings?" he asks. "Of course. But the shortfalls of seminaries that are not accredited can be serious."
In the final analysis, Walston says, students' top priority is usually a solid biblical and theological education. "Each student," he says, "must determine how important accreditation is to his or her educational and occupational goals."
Kathy Furlong is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA.