Accreditation is one of the most important components of higher education, a distinction which even Christian colleges are concerned with. In addition to accreditation from governmentally approved organizations, several religiously affiliated groups also offer accreditation. With the rise of distance education, online Bible college accreditation also exists. The following guide breaks down secular and religious accreditations, provides advice to students on finding a school, and offers guidance for researching a prospective school's accreditation status.
Why Does Accreditation for Christian Colleges Matter?
Accreditation is one of the most important components of higher education.
Accreditation is a process whereby colleges and universities voluntarily submit to assessments, including peer review and self-study. The process exists to ensure colleges adequately prepare students, offer support services, and maintain an environment conducive to learning.
Students that do not attend an accredited school may not be able to transfer credits to a different school or receive licensure and/or certification. They may also have difficulty finding employment and receiving acceptance to a graduate program. Conversely, learners attending accredited schools need not worry about these issues as the school complies with all requirements to maintain accreditation.
General college accrediting agencies exist across the higher education spectrum and do not cater exclusively to Christian colleges. That being said, they accredit both religious and secular schools, so learners may come across the agencies listed below when researching institutions.
CHEA - Council for Higher Education Accreditation
Operating as an overarching advocacy organization, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains a membership of more than 3,000 colleges and universities. Seen as an arbiter of accreditation, CHEA recognizes approximately 60 accrediting organizations which exist independent of the government. These accrediting organizations include regional, programmatic, faith-based, and career-focused accreditors. CHEA accrediting organizations also provide specialized accreditation whereby an accrediting body evaluates a specific degree, department, or school within a college. After participating in the accreditation process and demonstrating a commitment to excellence, schools receive accreditation from one of the CHEA-recognized organizations. After this step, they qualify for membership within CHEA.
The Department of Education
All accrediting bodies exist as nongovernmental organizations. Because of this, the Department of Education (ED) does not provide accreditation to any colleges or universities. Rather, the agency oversees federally recognized agencies providing accreditation. In this role, the department ensures that accrediting agencies recognized by the ED comply with rules and regulations and that schools maintain accreditation standards. Agencies deemed ineffective or unreliable by the Secretary of Education can have their federal recognition revoked. The ED recognizes regional, programmatic, specialized, faith-based, and career-focused accrediting agencies. The organization also maintains an up-to-date database of accredited academic departments and institutions recognized by ED-approved accrediting organizations.
Regional and national accrediting agencies validate entire institutions, but the methods each uses differ. National accreditation agencies typically focus on trade schools, technical colleges, and vocational schools. The process is less rigorous than regional accreditation. Regional accreditation usually applies to public and private four-year and graduate school institutions. Regional accreditation represents a rigorous process whereby accrediting agency representatives conduct site visits and schools complete self-studies. This process typically takes multiple years to complete and peer-review panels often require schools to meet additional standards before awarding accreditation. The agencies highlighted below represent the regional accrediting agencies in the U.S. Students can review the following regions to learn which agency represents their state/region.
|Higher Learning Commission||Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming|
|New England Association of Schools and Colleges||Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont|
|Southern Association of Colleges and Schools||Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia|
|Middle States Commission on Higher Education||Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Washington D.C.|
|Western Association of Schools and Colleges||California, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Federated States of Micronesia, Northern Marianas Islands, Palau, Tokyo|
|Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities||Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, British Columbia|
Institutional vs. Program Accreditation
In addition to regional and national accreditation, learners should research institutional and programmatic accreditation. Institutional accreditation focuses on the school as a whole, while programmatic accreditation targets a specific degree or department. Regional and national accreditation fall into the institutional category as both of these accreditations assess school-wide policies, support systems, career services, and other campus programs and procedures that contribute to the wellbeing and preparedness of each student.
Programmatic -- or specialized -- accreditation assesses individual degrees or academic departments to ensure coursework in that subject area adequately represents the discipline. Many programmatic accrediting agencies, such as the American Psychological Association, only accredit graduate-level programs, meaning students at the baccalaureate level may experience trouble finding a degree accredited at the programmatic level.
While mainstream accreditation agencies frequently approve faith-based institutions, several religious accrediting agencies exist to review the more nuanced aspects of providing a Christian education. The following section highlights some of the best accrediting associations and provides details on the requirements of each.
Association for Biblical Higher Education
Founded in 1947, the Association for Biblical Higher Education has undergone multiple name changes, but its commitment to accrediting programs that help students engage with the Bible and spiritual principles remains consistent. The latest name change reflects the association's expansion into accrediting graduate-level programs. To receive accreditation from the ABHE, institutions must participate voluntarily, provide a comprehensive self-study, and submit to a peer review. Schools may need to make changes based on findings before receiving full accreditation. To maintain their accreditation, colleges and universities must agree to maintain standards and participate in a review. The ABHE accredits colleges and universities of all denominational traditions and backgrounds, but each school must demonstrate how the Bible plays a central role in the curriculum, student expectations, and campus lifestyle.
The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada
In 2018, The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada celebrated 100 years of helping theology schools and seminaries improve and develop the services they offer to members of faith. The organization maintains a membership of 270 higher education institutions which take part in three levels of membership. Schools seeking accreditation must petition to be considered before submitting a self-study and assessment for consideration by the board of commissioners. After this step, an evaluating committee visits the petitioning school to discover whether the institution meets ATS standards or whether it must make changes. Once all requirements are satisfied, member schools pay a set of dues and fees to be fully recognized as accredited. Schools must submit to interim reports and evaluations to maintain accreditation over time. Of the 270 ATS members, 260 enjoy accreditation from the organization.
Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools
The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools developed in 1979 as a nonprofit, voluntary organization focused on helping colleges and universities with a "distinctly Christian purpose" develop, grow, and improve their services. Recognized by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, TRACS serves Christian institutions offering certificates and diplomas alongside associate, bachelor's, and graduate degrees. To be considered for accreditation, schools must meet both TRACS and national standards regarding curriculum, faculty training, learning outcomes, and programmatic development. The organization works with prospective member institutions to ensure the school's faith-based character shines through while providing education that students can capitalize on upon graduation. TRACS is also a member of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education and the American Council on Education.
Association of Independent Christian Colleges & Seminaries
As one of the largest private, nonprofit accrediting agencies on the globe, the Association of Independent Christian Colleges and Seminaries provides accreditation to more than 400 colleges, universities, and seminaries in 47 countries. The main purpose of AICCS is to offer accreditation unaffiliated with a governmental body -- this extends to both campus-based and online degree paths at the associate, bachelor's, and graduate levels. To be considered for accreditation, schools must volunteer to participate in the process. They must then develop a self-study incorporating the views and opinions of students, professors, and administrators. AICCS evaluators then visit the campus to complete an onsite review. The evaluating team submits its findings and the school can respond and/or make improvements. After this step, the commission makes a decision about accreditation and publishes the results in the AICCS directory.
With the rise of online accredited Bible colleges and online accredited Christian colleges, many learners want to know whether distance learning programs undergo the same amount of scrutiny as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. In short, the answer is yes. The majority of Bible colleges, Christian colleges, and seminaries with online degree paths submit these programs to accreditation commissions while undergoing the process for traditional campus-based programs. In most cases, the online versions of brick-and-mortar degrees use the same curriculum and degree requirements, making it easy for accreditation advisory boards to evaluate efficacy while visiting the school.
In addition to standard accreditation by agencies approved through the Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) developed the Accreditation Protocol for Online Learning to ensure online faith-based programs function within best practices and standards. This new style of accreditation, first introduced during the 2015-2016 academic year, has accredited two fully online schools as of 2018. Schools looking to learn more about online accreditation can contact ACSI directly. At present, two other fully online schools are working through the accreditation process.
After learning about different paths to accreditation, current and future students may wish to research whether their school meets programmatic or institutional accreditation standards. Several accreditation bodies and oversight agencies provide searchable databases to make the research process easier.
The National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator allows users to search schools based on name, location, programs, level of education, and institutional type. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education provides the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs that allows visitors to search by school names. Students can also visit the websites of specific programmatic, faith-based, or career-focused accrediting agencies to see if their school is accredited.
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