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 fraudulent (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?
… 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?
I hear about all kinds of accrediting agencies. How can I tell which ones are legitimate?
Just as there are fraudulent institutional claims to accreditation, there are fraudulent (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) provides government recognition 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) provides non-government recognition of accrediting agencies through a board of elected higher education leaders. CHEA recognizes only accrediting agencies 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. ABHE has maintained recognition by the U.S. Department of Education as an institutional accrediting agency since the Department began recognizing accrediting agencies in 1952. ABHE’s most recent USDE renewal of recognition occurred in 2017. ABHE’s scope of recognition with USDE includes institutions in the U.S. and U.S. territories that offer undergraduate certificates, associate degrees, baccalaureate degrees, graduate certificates, and master’s degrees, including the accreditation of educational programs offered via distance education.
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). At its meeting on January 24, 2022, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) Board of Directors reviewed the recommendation of the CHEA Committee on Recognition regarding the recognition application submitted by the Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation (ABHE). The Board of Directors accepted the committee recommendation and recognized ABHE for the following recognized scope of accreditation: Institutions and programs in the United States, Canada and related territories that offer certificates, diplomas, associate, baccalaureate or graduate degrees aimed at preparing students for Christian ministries through Biblical, church-vocational and general studies. (2007)
How is ABHE accreditation different from other types of accreditation?
There are basically two categories of accrediting agencies: institutional and programmatic.
INSTITUTIONAL accreditation means that the accreditation granted applies to the institution and all academic programs it offers. PROGRAMMATIC accreditation means that the accreditation granted applies to specified programs. Programmatic accreditation is often associated with specific professions (law, business, medicine, physical therapy, art, music, etc.). ABHE is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) as an institutional accreditor and by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as both an institutional and programmatic (Bible/ministry) accreditor.
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education discontinued the recognition of REGIONAL accreditation as a separate classification of accreditors. All institutional accrediting agencies have been evaluated on the same federal standards since 1952; consequently, the Department concluded that there should be no distinction between institutional accreditors based on regional or national scope. Any claim that regional accreditation is superior to other recognized accreditation is urban legend; however, the perception that accreditation by one of the six senior regional agencies is better may persist for some time.
USDE 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 Federal Student 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 grants or loans. Less than 40% of recognized accrediting agencies are approved Title IV gatekeepers. ABHE is one of those recognized Title IV gatekeepers.
ABHE is also one of five recognized faith-related accrediting agencies, and one of just two that accredit only Christian institutions of higher education. All graduates of ABHE institutions must have a foundation in biblical/theological studies (the equivalent of 30 semester credit hours for a bachelor’s degree) and complete a program of practical ministry formation as part of the educational experience.
Does ABHE accredit seminary/graduate programs?
Yes. ABHE accredits all levels of postsecondary education—from undergraduate certificates and associate degrees to doctoral degrees. Approximately two-thirds of ABHE accredited institutions currently offer graduate education. Prior to 2004, ABHE (formerly the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges) accredited only undergraduate theological and ministerial study programs. Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognition for all programs through the doctoral level was granted to ABHE in 2007. U.S. Department of Education (USDE) recognition for master’s degrees and graduate certificates was granted in 2020. Because of the difference in the two recognitions, some doctoral programs at ABHE institutions may not be eligible for Title IV loans.
Does ABHE accredit specific programs or just institutions?
Does ABHE accredit institutions outside of North America?
Will accreditation guarantee that my credits will transfer?
Not necessarily. No institution is required 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, and updated in 2022, 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?
Is an institution that offers a biblical higher education academically inferior to other types of colleges?
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?
ACCESS: The Association of Christian Distance Education is 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. The Complaint Policy and form are available HERE.
I’m interested in teaching in an institution accredited by ABHE. What credentials do I need, and how do I find out about opportunities?
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 institutes, colleges and theological seminaries continue to emerge and thrive. 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 Packet under Accreditation Documents at abhe.org for a wealth of information on seeking accreditation. Note that to qualify for applicant status with ABHE, an institution must have been in operation for a minimum of two years, offer at least one program of two or more years in length, have graduated students from the primary (longest) program, have a stable enrollment of 30 or more students over the past two years, and have enrollment in all programs it offers. The process of achieving accreditation normally takes eight to ten years.