Accreditation of institutions of higher learning is a process that has been taking place since the late 1800's, and it affects nearly every educational institution in the country. Some say that the idea behind accreditation is to provide students and other institutions with a basic assurance of educational quality and to determine whether or not the institutions are accomplishing what they say their mission is. Accrediting associations are organizations run by educators who decide what a college ought to be and dictate policy to their member schools. While there is no law that requires colleges to join an accrediting association, Congress linked eligibility for federal funding to membership in a regional association. This action puts a fair amount of pressure on colleges and universities to seek accreditation from regional or national accrediting agencies. Most colleges and universities seek accreditation, but there are many who do not. Many people believe that the educational standards of those that are not accredited are lower than schools that are.
Those who favor accreditation of higher education institutions generally present their thoughts about the issue in a positive sense, but there are some who seem to be derogatory toward those who would disagree with them. One newspaper reporter said, "The world of religious education is more rife with credential abuse than its secular counterparts," and a writer for Christianity Today displayed this derogatory attitude when he stated:
"Sometimes small theology schools, usually fundamentalist, will publicly refuse to seek accreditation from any of these, under the mistaken notion that the groups are connected with the government. They are not; they are all private. (This excuse is sometimes convenient when a school cannot possibly meet the standards.)" [italics mine.]
A Baptist college publication compares attempting to transfer non-accredited college credits to an accredited college with trying to use Indian beads to buy food at a restaurant. Many statements by those who favor accreditation simply claim the benefits of excellence, credibility, renewal, worth, and accountability.
Those in opposition to accreditation claim the issue at stake is nothing less than the spiritual quality of a student's education. They say that the process takes a school's diversity from them and makes them the same as all the others and that Christians are not to walk in the counsel of the ungodly. Ron Comfort said, "I have yet to read or hear a spiritual reason for a Christian college acquiring accreditation." Others say that the denominational distinctives and strong convictions of fundamental, Bible-teaching seminaries do not allow them to be a part of a diverse, accrediting association, and they question, "Who gave these associations the qualifications and Biblical expertise to know how a Bible-teaching school should be run?" Many conservative Southern Baptists believe accreditation is the reason they may lose any ground they had gained against liberalism in the Convention. Even secular writers say that the idea of accreditation needs to examine itself. They claim it has turned into "bean-counter mentality," and has inhibited the flexibility and diversity of the American educational process.
Accreditation of Christian Higher Education Institutions
In many states of the union, colleges and universities are not allowed to grant degrees unless they have permission from the state government. In some states, religious schools escape this government intrusion, but legality and accreditation are sometimes confused. While many institutions may be operating legally, not all of them are accredited. The only accreditation that really matters (for government funding, etc.) is that from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. There are six federally-recognized, regional accrediting associations. There are many federally-recognized, national, professional accrediting associations. Three of these are recognized to accredit religious colleges, universities, and seminaries. Christian colleges that seek accreditation differ as to the amount of intrusion regional or professional accreditation brings.
There are many voices against regional accreditation of Christian colleges. Schools that seek regional accreditation experience such spiritually debilitating effects so as to prove to be the undoing of every Christian school that has received it. The compromises tolerated never seem to be enough to please the associations, and the hands, which promise security, safety, and satisfaction, are really the grip of death. Regional accreditation agencies dictate that colleges change their programs, and these changes take away the distinctives that make a school a Christian institution. The changes are not just educational; they are social changes that address curricula, recruiting, retention strategies for students, faculty, and staff members, student life programs, and academic support for the students. The Western Association requires that its member colleges (Christian ones, too) promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. Regional accreditation is positively fatal to a college's spiritual life. There are heightened efforts by a number of accrediting agencies to make sure colleges have an ethnically representative faculty, and even curriculum. Some may believe that these difficulties are subtle, but recently the associations have been more blatant. The Western Association would not renew a certain school's accreditation because of their doctrinal statement. Regional accrediting agencies used to evaluate how an institution accomplished its mission; now they are evaluating the mission by cultural standards. Accreditation transforms a church-related college program until it conforms in the most significant respects to academic programs of secular institutions.
In response to the question of secular influence over religious schools by the regional associations, three religious accrediting associations have been started. These associations must be recognized by the Department of Education, but they are composed of religious educators in the broadest sense. Some that would fear secular approval are in favor of religious accreditation. Others point out that even a good accrediting agency could someday be led by bad men who could enforce bad principles upon the accredited members, and remembering that all accrediting agencies seek federal recognition, ask, "If these religious accrediting bodies go far enough to please the state, will they not go too far to be acceptable to the schools that value their independence under God?"
The Approval Process for Institutions
While the Department of Education does not directly accredit schools or programs, each accrediting agency (regional or professional) must apply for recognition by the department and submit to a review by a committee of the department. Each accrediting association then develops its own process and procedures for membership. All of them include an extensive self-study and periodic peer reviews. While the regional agencies are the most well known and accredit schools with the most similarities, they still have differences between them. Each one develops its own criteria for accreditation.
The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which seems to be the most conservative (least intrusive), expects the following general institution requirements: The school must be a degree-granting institution with a public mission statement. They must have legal authorization, meet legal requirements, and submit legal documents to confirm their status. The school must have a governing board comprised of public members who are sufficiently autonomous to appoint an executive office and authorize affiliation with the NCA. The board must possess and exercise its power. There should be a sufficient number of full-time faculty with appropriate degrees from accredited institutions who have a significant role in developing and evaluating the school's educational programs. The school should have conferred degrees; they should have degree programs in place with students enrolled in them; the degree programs should be compatible with the school mission; and they should be appropriately named. Undergraduate degrees should have a minimum general education requirement. The school should practice consistent admissions policies and should provide students access to learning resources. The school's financial practices should display fiscal viability, appropriate allocation and use of resources, and should include an external audit by a CPA at least every two years. The school should have a catalog with all pertinent information included; all important publications should include an accurate disclosure of the accreditation standing; and the financial condition of the school should be available upon request.
All three religious accrediting associations (Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges - AABC, Association of Theological Schools - ATS, and Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools - TRACS) follow much the same format as the regional associations. Membership eligibility includes those listed for NCA, and normally adds categories such as support for tenets of faith, a Christian service program, a broad offering of theological disciplines, and openness to the community of theological schools. Whether an institution decides for regional or religious accreditation, there is a lot of scrutiny and paperwork involved.
Reaction and Analysis
One man, writing in opposition to accreditation, said, "The wise educator will see to it that his product is so much better than the product of the accreditors. He should see to it that in every area his work surpasses that of the public schools. He should carefully and conclusively prove that his product is superior to the other product and that the student will sacrifice no good thing by attending the Christian school." This is just the reaction that has taken the focus of Christian educators away from where it should be. Because the accreditors say the issue is about quality, we focus there. It is clear to me that the issue is not quality; it is control. When we focus on quality, and try to match our quality with the world's quality, we lose control. Even though our schools would still be Christian, we would not produce godly Christians. We would produce well-trained academians.
Someone in favor of accreditation said that since we expect the government to make laws about areas of life that have "no bearing on Christianity," we should not arbitrarily decide not to accept educational licenses. First, honest secular educators know that education IS a religious exercise. It is not right to compare educational accreditation or licensing to areas of life that have "no bearing on Christianity." Second, in light of these convictions, we do not arbitrarily decide not to be accredited.
The Independent Baptist College of Dallas, Texas lost its exemption under the state higher education law because it could not obtain accreditation from the AABC. The reason they could not be accredited was that they would not have members on their governing board who were not members of their church (the school is a ministry of the Trinity Temple Baptist Church). This is just the example needed to show the extent religious accrediting bodies will go to obtain recognition from the government. It also underscores the claim that even they do not know how to evaluate truly Biblical schools.
If the benefits of the accreditation process are so great, why cannot Christian colleges follow the process and retain their autonomy? The public documents describing the process of accreditation do include some things that would be helpful for a college to do. Self-evaluation is good. Fairhaven Baptist College benefits from this type of exercise, while not allowing others to tell us how our college should be controlled, directed, etc.
If Christian educators view their calling in the same light as a public transportation bus driver, they should submit themselves to secular, government sponsored accreditation. But, if they believe their calling is from God and their purpose to have eternal consequences, no one but God can accredit or approve their work, and no organization should be allowed to "force" them to change.