Accreditation Frequently Asked Questions
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a means of assuring the public that an institution meets accepted standards of quality and integrity. It developed in the United States early in the 20th century and has continued to be one of the cornerstones of North America’s unparalleled achievement in higher educational quality and diversity. In many ways, the North American system of higher education is the envy of the world – a world in which higher education (including theological education) is all too typically uniform and heavily regulated by either a government ministry of education or government chartered universities. Interestingly, accreditation is spreading throughout the world, as more and more countries adopt some form of this widely acclaimed mechanism for quality assurance and quality improvement. Accreditation is founded upon three key principles: voluntary participation, self-study, and peer review. Standards are self-imposed by responsible and seasoned educators among member institutions (increasingly, with strong input from public constituents). Institutions seeking to obtain or renew accreditation are required to conduct a comprehensive, analytical self-study involving input from every key internal and external institutional constituency and resulting in both an assessment of quality in reference to common standards and in recommendations for improvement. An evaluation team composed of professional peer educators from sister institutions typically reviews the institution’s self-study report, verifies the institution’s claims concerning quality and integrity, offers recommendations concerning compliance and/or improvement, and renders a decision concerning whether to recommend accreditation. The findings of an evaluation team (along with an institution’s response and follow up record) are typically reviewed by a commission or panel on accreditation (which includes representatives of the public) empowered to render a decision concerning the institution’s accredited status. H.R. Kells’ book, Self-Study Processes (1995, American Council on Education), is one of the most comprehensive and respected works on this subject. Kells suggests that an accredited institution is one that:
- Has a clear and distinctive purpose widely understood and embraced throughout the institution;
- Has ascertainable goals deriving from the purpose;
- Has resources (students, faculty, learning resources, facilities, technology, finances) adequate to assure that goals may continue to be achieved;
- Employs processes which ensure integrity and efficiency;
- Engages in continuous assessment, planning, and intentional resource allocation toward improvement;
- Substantially meets accrediting standards
An unaccredited institution is not necessarily substandard or bogus (though, to be sure, there are plenty of both in every sector of higher education – including Bible colleges and theological seminaries). There are indeed worthy and worthwhile institutions which have for one reason or another chosen not to seek accreditation. But you can have confidence that an institution which has subjected itself to the rigors of accreditation by a recognized accrediting agency is worthy of its claims to quality and integrity.
For more on this subject, check out the excellent discussion presented in the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s website: www.chea.org.
What is an institution of Biblical Higher Education?
The ABHE Manual defines an institution of biblical higher education as, “an institution of higher education in which the Bible is central and the development of Christian life and ministry is essential.” Institutions of biblical higher education are distinctive in their commitment to engage students biblically, transformationally, experientially, and missionally. Scattered across North America, biblical higher educational institutions have distinctive and diverse histories, ethnicity, and doctrinal/denominational affiliations. Our common commitments, however, mark us more deeply and distinctively than our diversity. We are committed to education that is legitimately postsecondary and academically rigorous, challenging students to develop critical thinking skills and leading them in the formation of a biblically grounded Christian worldview. While we may differ at the periphery and in many particulars, our educational philosophy revolves around a common center. We engage intentionally and pervasively in …
… biblical higher education – education that involves extensive and serious study of the text of God’s eternal Word, not in a posture of detachment and skepticism, but in a posture of discipleship and submission, seeking to understand the will of God so that we may conform to it, and the plan of God so that we may join Him in bringing about its fulfillment. This engagement with Scripture ensures that the formation of a Christian worldview issues not only from sincere devotion to Christ, but also from a comprehensive grasp of biblical teaching and a well-honed and growing ability to bring sound theological thinking to bear upon their engagement with a broad spectrum of humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral science, and natural/information science disciplines.
… transformational higher education – education that calls us to explore the moral and ethical implications of what we are studying. In so doing we: apply what we are learning from God’s Word; appropriate and collaborate with the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the process of developing personal values and virtues worthy of His adopted children; and are formed through deep engagement with a community of fellow Christ-followers. Such transformational higher education is validated not by a life orientation toward self-actualization or self-fulfillment, but rather by a posture of submission and self-denial, living out Kingdom values and Gospel priorities before a watching world.
… experiential higher education – facilitating hands-on ministry, service-learning, and intercultural study opportunities. Such experiences help us to discover and develop our own distinctive God-given gifts, passions, and sense of calling as well as to exercise and grow the life, ministry, and leadership skills required for passionate and proficient service.
… and missional higher education. We maintain that an authentically biblical worldview compels all believers – regardless of present or future occupation – to understand their personal vocation within the context of history’s destiny: the day when the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ. Recognizing that in the 21st century Christianity may enjoy cultural hegemony neither in North America nor abroad, our education involves acquiring and exercising tools for cultural exegesis and engagement in addition to the tools of biblical exegesis. We seek to encourage and equip graduates to take part according to their unique gifts, passions and callings in the global cause of proclaiming through word and deed the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ alone.
In what ways are Bible colleges/institutions of biblical higher education similar to/different from Christian liberal arts colleges/universities?
Institutions of biblical higher education (commonly referred to as Bible colleges) and Christian liberal arts colleges (such as those who are members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) have many similarities. Each emphasizes the importance of recognizing the Lordship of Christ over every aspect of thinking, living, and working. Each seeks to help students to develop a Christian world view and to cultivate Christian values and character. Each emphasizes the importance of a godly faculty who teach both by word and by example. Institutions of biblical higher education and Christian liberal arts colleges/universities are quite diverse, so it is dangerous to over-generalize. Nevertheless, here are a few ways in which Bible colleges and other types of biblical higher education institutions tend to differ from Christian liberal arts institutions: Regardless of the variety and diversity of their educational program offerings, institutions of biblical higher education generally require students to complete substantially more course work in biblical and theological studies than their Christian liberal arts counterparts. A typical ABHE institution requires 30+ semester hours of Bible. A typical Christian liberal arts college or university requires 6-12 semester hours of Bible. The majority of Christian liberal arts college/university educational program offerings (i.e., majors and minors) tend to center around the arts and sciences and marketplace professions, though many also offer some programs in biblical/theological studies and/or ministry professions. The majority of biblical higher education program offerings (i.e., majors and minors) tend to center around biblical/theological studies and vocational ministry professions, though many also offer some programs in the arts and sciences and marketplace professions. Christian liberal arts institutions have tended to place a stronger emphasis on equipping students to think and live “Christianly” in marketplace careers or professions. Institutions of biblical higher education emphasize preparation for ministry engagement. A higher percentage of students at institutions of biblical higher education are likely to be pursuing some type of church-related service than at a Christian liberal arts college or university. That is not to say that all, or even a majority, of biblical higher education graduates enter ministry employment, but even those who do not enter ministry employment are substantially equipped biblically and theologically and motivated for a life of gospel preoccupation even if they do not pursue a lifelong church occupation. ABHE accredited institutions require students to be involved in ministry formation experiences; many Christian liberal arts colleges/universities encourage ministry involvement, but most do not require it nor offer formal training, supervision, and evaluation.
I hear about all kinds of accrediting agencies. How can I tell which ones are legitimate?
Just as there are bogus institutional claims to accreditation, there are bogus (or at least unrecognized) accrediting agencies. Accrediting agencies in North America may be recognized in one of two ways.
- The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) exercises a recognition function for higher educational accrediting agencies. The recognition process involves rigorous documentation of compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, on-site inspections and/or observation of accreditation processes, and a public hearing conducted by a national citizens review panel. USDE recognition may be granted for up to five years at a time; it must be renewed upon expiration.
- The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is the national policy center and clearinghouse on accreditation within U.S. higher education. CHEA exercises a recognition function which encompasses institutions accredited by an agency in which the majority of institutions are degree granting. CHEA is a successor organization to the Commission on Recognition of Postsecondary Accreditation (CORPA) and the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA).
The Association for Biblical Higher Education (formerly the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges) has been in existence since 1947, making it one of the older and more experienced accrediting bodies. We have maintained recognition by the U.S. Department of Education as a national institutional accrediting agency for undergraduate biblical/theological education since the department began recognizing accrediting agencies in 1952. Our most recent USDE renewal of recognition occurred in 2014. Although recognition by USDE is currently limited to undergraduate education, ABHE is working to achieve USDE recognition for graduate-level accreditation.
ABHE was a charter member of COPA when it was formed in 1975 and has maintained continuous recognition with COPA’s successor organizations, CORPA and CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation)
How is ABHE accreditation different from other types of accreditation?
There are basically three categories of accrediting agencies: regional, national, and specialized/programmatic:
REGIONAL accrediting agencies accredit, as the name implies, higher educational institutions of all types within a given geographic region. They feature generic standards, accommodate a wide variety of institutional missions, and usually require substantial institutional resources. The six US regional accrediting associations are: New England, Middle States, Southern, North Central, Northwest, and Western.
NATIONAL accrediting agencies accredit special purpose institutions (e.g., those with specific vocational, professional, or religious/theological missions). National accrediting agencies may also be specialized. Recognized national, specialized, institutional accrediting agencies include the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS); Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE); Association of Theological Schools (ATS); and National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCAS). Other non-specialized, national, institutional accrediting agencies include the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS); Council on Occupational Education (COE); Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC); and Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS).
SPECIALIZED/PROGRAMMATIC agencies accredit programs and/or free standing professional schools, typically departments or subunits of larger institutions. Examples of specialized or programmatic agencies (there are dozens of them) include the Licensing Council for Medical Education (LCME), Council for Social Work Education (CSWE), National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), to name a few. You can easily verify types and recognition of accrediting agencies through USDE or CHEA online databases.
The U.S. Department of Education also maintains a directory of Accrediting Agencies Recognized for Title IV Purposes. Only these accrediting agencies are approved as gatekeepers for institutions seeking to participate in Title IV Student Financial Aid programs of the Higher Education Act. A student attending an institution not accredited by one of these agencies does not have access to Title IV Student Financial Aid grants or loans.
Does ABHE accredit seminary/graduate programs?
Yes. ABHE is a national, institutional accrediting agency whose scope encompasses all levels of postsecondary education–from associate to doctoral degrees. Approximately one-third of ABHE member institutions currently offer graduate education. Prior to 2004, ABHE (formerly the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges) was limited in scope to accreditation of undergraduate theological and ministerial study programs. In 2004, ABHE members approved new Comprehensive Integrated Standards that address both undergraduate and graduate education for institutions that currently have or are seeking institutional accreditation. Following its adoption of the Comprehensive Integrated Standards, ABHE undertook the process of seeking formal recognition of this “expansion of scope” by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA recognition of ABHE’s comprehensive scope was granted in 2007. Because ABHE’s USDE recognition is currently limited to undergraduate study, graduate students do not have access to Title IV loans. ABHE’s comprehensive scope reflects the growing diversity and complexity of its member institutions.
Does ABHE accredit specific programs or just institutions?
In 2004, ABHE members voted to adopt new Programmatic Accreditation Standards. Programmatic accreditation applies to biblical/theological/ministerial programs, divisions or schools within liberal arts or comprehensive institutions. Institutions that pursue programmatic accreditation are required to subscribe to the Association’s tenets of faith, provide evidence of institutional accreditation by a recognized agency, document appropriate state or provincial approvals to offer eligible programs, and furnish a mission statement that encompasses programs of preparation for church or parachurch vocations. Furthermore, the programs submitted for accreditation must comply with the Association’s curricular standards (relative to Bible/theology and general studies) and specific student ministry/ministry formation requirements.
Does ABHE accredit institutions outside of North America?
ABHE’s Commission on Accreditation accredits institutions and programs of biblical higher education within Canada, the United States, and related territories. ABHE intentionally limits its accreditation activities to institutions whose main campuses are located in the US, Canada, or related territories. ABHE accreditation does apply to international branch campuses and additional locations of US and Canadian institutions. ABHE is a long standing member of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE), a theological education affiliate of the World Evangelical Alliance. The Council is a global community comprised of nine continental/regional networks of theological schools. The mission of ICETE is to promote excellence and renewal in evangelical theological education by cultivating community and facilitating community among its constituent associations and related entities. For more information on ICETE or one of the continental/regional associations, visit the ICETE website.
Will accreditation guarantee that my credits will transfer?
Not necessarily. No institution is forced to accept credits from another–regardless of accreditation or lack thereof. It is always the prerogative of the receiving institution to determine whether and which credit will transfer. That said, colleges should not practice discrimination or engage in arbitrary practices.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), in conjunction with the 19 recognized institutional accreditors that included ABHE, developed a framework for meeting transfer of credit responsibilities in 2000 entitled A Statement to the Community: Transfer and the Public Interest. This statement was the result of CHEA’s concern that the accredited status of a program or institution assist, not hinder, students in the transfer process.
CHEA’s work on accreditation and transfer is based on three important considerations:
Accredited status of an institution is an important, but not the sole factor, to consider in transfer of credit decisions. Considering transfer requests serves students and the public. The public interest and students are best served when institutions commit to at least consideration of transfer requests, not rejecting such requests out of hand. Accepting transfer credits is the responsibility and prerogative of institutions.
The CHEA Statement offers four criteria that accrediting organizations and institutions are asked to consider as decisions are made about transfer of credit and academic quality.
These criteria are:
Balance in the use of accreditation status in transfer decisions: Institutions and accreditors need to assure that transfer decisions are not made solely on source of accreditation of a sending program or institution. Consistency: Institutions and accreditors need to reaffirm that the considerations that inform transfer decisions are applied consistently. Accountability for effective public communication: Institutions and accreditors need to assure that students and the public are fully and accurately informed about their respective transfer policies and practices. Communication to address innovation: Institutions and accreditors need to be flexible and open in considering alternative approaches to managing transfer when these approaches will benefit students.
The Statement goes on to say that the transfer framework is offered as an advisory document for accrediting agencies and institutions. CHEA and the accrediting organizations believe that efforts to strengthen transfer would be most successful if approached in a collegial manner; the framework does not constitute an accreditation or recognition standard. If you believe that you or someone you know has been treated unfairly in regard to transfer credit, you are welcome to solicit our help in seeking fair consideration of your work.
Is accreditation retroactive?
No. If you earned a degree from an institution which has subsequently become accredited, it does not automatically mean that your degree is “accredited.” On the other hand, many college and university registrars and admissions officers are inclined to look more favorably upon work completed at an unaccredited institution if it subsequently becomes accredited–especially if the accreditation took place soon after the degree was earned. It is reasonable to assume that an institution which gains accreditation did not make a quantum leap in quality over night.
Is an institution that offers a biblical higher education academically inferior to other types of colleges?
This unfortunate but common stereotype amounts to unfounded folklore. The term biblical higher education is not an oxymoron! Some condescending and disparaging attitudes are motivated by religious discrimination. For example, many assert that study of the Bible is unworthy of serious academic pursuit. Others assert that adherence to philosophical and doctrinal tenets are inimical to academic freedom and true education. (Ironically, these critics fail to recognize the philosophical absolutism inherent in their own position). General education is a common element in most college degree programs. The idea of general education is to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need for thinking and citizenship throughout life. Contrary to popular belief, students attending ABHE accredited institutions are generally required to complete more general education course work than many of their counterparts in other sectors of higher education. ABHE accredited colleges must require students to complete a substantial general education core involving study in such areas as humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral science, and natural/information science. ABHE institutions insist on general education in order to help students learn how to think biblically about every area of life. The goal is the development of a comprehensive Christian or biblical world view.
Faculty members in ABHE institutions are required to have completed accredited graduate degrees in their field of instructional responsibility. (As is the case in most other accrediting associations–including regional associations–exceptions must be limited, properly validated, and justified on the basis of professional vitae.) Among the full-time resident faculty in member colleges who teach the vast majority of the curriculum, 97% have such graduate credentials. More than 40% of this total have earned accredited terminal (i.e., doctoral) degrees.
While many (though not all) institutions of biblical higher education are less academically selective than some prestigious secular colleges, there is ample evidence that, when controlled for selectivity, Bible college student achievement compares quite favorably with that of other types of colleges. A growing body of research demonstrates that graduates of ABHE member colleges excel when they transfer to other institutions or move on to graduate studies. A study conducted more than ten years ago, for example, revealed that nearly 70% of the graduates of ABHE member institutions pursued additional studies and, of these, roughly half earned graduate degrees. Many graduates of ABHE institutions have earned advanced degrees from America’s most prestigious universities. Bible college student outcomes research (e.g., Brown, 1983; Enlow, 1988) has repeatedly shown that Bible college student outcomes–including general education outcomes–compare quite favorably to those of students in other segments of higher education.
How do I check out a college’s accreditation claims?
How can I find out about distance learning opportunities for Biblical/ministry training?
Be warned, Christian distance educational opportunities are exploding. And not everything out there is worth your time and money–including some institutions with flashy, high profile advertisements in leading Christian periodicals. ACCESS: The Association of Christian Distance Education is also a great network through which to learn about reputable Christian distance education opportunities.
What should I do if I have a complaint against an ABHE institution?
ABHE’s Commission on Accreditation Manual has a formal Policy on Complaints Against an Institution. Contact us via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone (407-207-0808) if you wish to discuss a complaint and/or to receive a copy of our policy.
I’m interested in teaching in an institution accredited by ABHE. What credentials do I need, and how do I find out about opportunities?
ABHE offers an online job board, which lists both positions wanted and positions available. You may contact us via e-mail at email@example.com if you wish to have your notice posted. A small fee is required for this service.
As to credentials, faculty members in ABHE institutions are required to have earned accredited graduate degrees in their field of instruction. (As is the case in most other accrediting associations–including regional associations–exceptions must be limited, properly validated, and justified on the basis of professional vitae.) In general, ABHE institutions require undergraduate faculty to have a minimum of a master’s degree in their teaching discipline. Graduate faculty need to have earned terminal (doctoral) degrees in their primary teaching field. These degrees should be from institutions accredited by agencies recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education or by the appropriate provincial government.
Be careful not to confuse credentials with qualifications. The characteristics which most ABHE institutions are seeking in prospective faculty include evidence of exemplary and impeccable Christian character; evidence of academic and/or professional competence in one’s discipline; evidence of ability to communicate effectively in a college-level instructional setting; evidence of genuine spiritual vitality; and appropriate academic credentials.
We’re thinking of starting a Bible college or a theological seminary. How can we get help?
Your aspiration is commendable. And you are not alone. New Bible schools, institutes, colleges, and theological seminaries are springing up every day. Growing churches and missionary endeavors throughout North America and around the world need godly, well-equipped lay and vocational workers. Conservative estimates place the number of North American Bible schools, institutes or colleges to exceed 1,000. Evangelical seminaries would number several hundred. Download the Accreditation Inquiry Information packet under About Accreditation at abhe.org for a wealth of information on seeking accreditation, or consult the Evangelical Training Association for resources and counsel on starting an educational program.