Sunday, February 16, 2014

Some Thoughts on Formal Theological Education and Accreditation

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.

Endeavoring to acquire an education from a Christian institution of higher learning can be a rather contentious pursuit. The prospective student must carefully identify and consider his or her educational goals, family life, church service, and fiscal outlook. Based upon these considerations, a set of criteria is formed which serves as the concept or mold of the ideal school.

The wise student forms this mold around realistic and biblical criteria. This is especially true for someone who is given to the care and nurture of a family. Obviously, Christians ought not abandon an obligation to their family to enter into school. Nor ought one plunge willfully into a substantial amount of debt to gain a Christian education. The great irony is that many believing persons do just that. Myriads of God's people become willfully enslaved to lenders (Proverbs 22:7), ignoring God's principles regarding the wise stewarding of his resources.

In my own pursuit of a Christian education, I've considered these things. I realized a call to ministry in my own life and I have sought an education accordingly. I found that the institution that fits my mold of of the ideal school is hard to come by. As a full time employee and the sole provider for a large and growing family, an expensive traditional education was ruled out from the start. Having no suitable institution nearby, I decided upon utilizing distance education. However, as I began to parse through the almost endless number of Christian colleges and seminaries that have a distance program, I noticed an abundance of schools that lacked an accreditation recognized by either the United States Department of Education (USDE, or USED if you like...), or The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Initially I enrolled in an accredited secular institution via distance so as to complete the general education courses required by virtually all reputable colleges and seminaries. I have taken courses using both traditional classroom learning and distance learning. I've taken classes in the "hard" sciences and the humanities in both formats. What became rather evident during this time was the profound differences between the two. Distance courses are far more dependent on the study of text books and other literature. I have found that they also typically require more writing and research and hence more work. Frankly, the amount of work and discipline required to get a good grade in a distance course exceeded the work required for the traditional method.

Truly, distance education is little more than a timed and directed form of self-education or autodidacticism. Surely there are those who agree and argue that because of this, distance education is a poor substitute for the "real thing." Recently a rather affable and seminary educated friend of mine stated something to this effect. He said, "I don't generally recommend distance programs. Education should be a communal thing." But, this kind of objection fails to recognize that many students are more apt to learn via distance due to the fact that as adults, they have spent years learning primarily by self-education. Hence, many adult students may be better suited for distance learning than that of the traditional methodology and therefore proponents of the traditional methodology cannot legitimately lay claim to having the only "real" methodology.

Moreover, no one need treat their educational experience like an isolation chamber. Most distance programs require forum involvement whereby the student interacts with other students on a limited basis. So too, one need not restrict their studies to the discussion forum. Thus, it is merely an assumption to suggest that distance education is not a "communal thing."

Since distance education relies so heavily upon textbooks, writing, and related coursework, the best distance education primarily relies upon the best materials. It would seem then that when it comes to distance learning, the actual curriculum is the great equalizer. For example, there is a well known school that offers an undergraduate course in systematic theology. This course utilizes two widely used texts and costs $540 per credit hour. Another school, not nearly as well known, offers the same class and uses the same textbooks. This school is $260 per credit hour. That is a difference o $855 for one class. Astounded, I examined the syllabus for both classes and found them to be essentially the same. Why the price difference? Well, the more expensive institution is physically much larger with many very nice buildings. It also happens to employ a few well known and highly regarded professors. But in the distance setting, virtually none of that matters in the slightest.

But wait- there is more. There is yet another school which offers a systematics class that uses the same materials and requires similar work. However, this school only charges $120 per credit hour. Compared to the other two, that is a savings of $1275 and $420 respectively. There is a caveat: this last class is offered by an institution that does not hold an accreditation recognized by the USDE or CHEA. Is the educational experience different between these schools? Perhaps it is to some degree, but likely not to the detriment of the actual material learned.

Accreditation: To Be or Not To Be

When it comes to a theological education by distance, one of the most important variables is the quality and rigor of the coursework. However, there are other considerations such as program cost, degree program, projected credibility of the school, and accreditation. Accreditation is the hot button issue that, in the mind of many, delineates a real degree from a pretender. Or worse, accreditation is what separates an earned degree from one merely purchased. After all, aren't all non-accredited degrees from degree mills? Surely not. Such a statement is akin to suggesting that all "Christian" colleges and seminaries are Christian.

According to Dr. Rick Walston, the accrediting process involves the in-depth evaluation of a school's "legal and academic structure, educational philosophy, curriculum, financial status, library, [and] future planning."[1] While some of these issues are relevant to a distance program, some like the number of volumes in a library, the amount of cash in the bank, or the presence of a gymnasium are utterly irrelevant. Some Christian schools have not only opted out of conventional accreditation due to theological or ideological reasons, but many are so small they could not possibly meet the criteria required by those accreditors recognized by the USDE and CHEA.

Therein lies the rub. Some Christian organizations have arisen so as to provide an alternative to traditional accreditation. Generally, the point of these organizations is to serve as a sanctioning body that identifies an institution with academic quality and rigor, and biblical orthodoxy. Essentially, these organizations function for much the same reason as the traditional accreditors; to acknowledge that a school meets a certain set of standards. Unfortunately there are also many organizations that exist to deceive people into believing that certain schools are traditionally accredited. These organizations are always involved in unethical practices in their presentation, their standards, and subsequently their "accreditation."

Some Christians do not differentiate between these two types of non-traditional accreditation. Some, like Walston, view any "accreditation" not recognized by either the USDE or CHEA as "worthless."[2] I don't share this view. Suppose for a moment that an independent (i.e., with no relation to a particular school) Christian organization emerged so as to evaluate Christian institutions and verify that they met a certain set of standards with regards to their governance, staffing, academics, and orthodoxy. Upon what basis could the term accreditor not be apt regarding such an organization? Merely because the government doesn't recognize it? Or because it is not recognized by the CHEA?

Evidently, Dr. Walston does not believe that the term "accreditor" can ever be applied to such an organization legitimately.[3] Subsequently, schools that possess any kind of non-traditional (i.e., non-recognized by the USDE or CHEA) accreditation are lampooned in his book. Granted, their are many accreditation mills "accrediting" schools that either sell degrees or allow for substandard work. However, I can think of no good reason to fail to make the aforementioned differentiation. Apparently, Walston believes there can be no legitimate Christian alternative to the accreditation establishment.

Walston has gone further to assert that if a school fails to explicitly announce that its non-traditional accreditation is non-recognized, it is engaging in deception.[4] Such a position assumes that there can be no legitimate form of non-traditional accreditation and it demands that schools grant recognized accreditation a form of primacy over the alternative that they have selected. I think this position is both unreasonable and untenable in this age wherein the educational paradigm has changed.

Whatever the case, I think it reasonable and fair to assess each school and its accreditation on an individual basis- whether or not it has a "recognized" accreditation or not.

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1. Rick Walston, Walston's Guide to Distance Learning 5th Edition, (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2007), 70.
2. Ibid, 66.
3. Ibid, 69-70.
4. Ibid, 98-99.

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