I once received a phone call from a regionally accredited university, whose admissions counselor’s first words were something like this: “First of all, congratulations on achieving such a high GPA.” She then proceeded to ask a question, “Was your college accredited?” I explained that it was nationally accredited (but not regionally accredited). The phone call quickly ended, after I learned that their institution would not accept anyone unless they had a regionally accredited bachelor’s degree–I was applying to their graduate school. This literally infuriated me. How could a university’s admittance process be so narrow-minded in determining which students are equipped to enter one of its programs? Providentially, I applied to another grad school, which had a better program anyway, where I was accepted and will hopefully finish my M.A. this fall. This phone call taught me two valuable lessons. First, a regionally accredited school is not necessarily “better” (in terms of educational quality) than a nationally accredited school. I have compared syllabi and sat in on classes from regionally schools, and rarely do they require more from their students compared to my alma mater. Secondly, though, accreditation can potentially open more doors. The subject for this article, however, is directed not at national or regional accreditation. Instead, the question I am concerned with here would be, “Is an Unaccredited College or Seminary a Viable Option for Theological Education?”
- Why Would a Theological Institution Not Pursue Accreditation?
I have surveyed probably hundreds of websites from theological institutions, and most of them have a page on accreditation. For schools that are unaccredited, they usually refer to some of these reasons. (1) They avoid accreditation to keep costs low. For a school to obtain or retain their status with an accreditation body, it requires a lot of time and money. Generally, unaccredited schools are much cheaper in tuition rates. (2) They avoid accreditation to separate themselves from the workings of the federal government. Most college students have spent hours filling out FAFSA forms. If they (or their parents) don’t make a lot of money, then might be able to obtain grant money and loans. Students that attend unaccredited schools cannot apply for federal aid (to the best of my knowledge), but then again, costs are also lower there. (3) They avoid accreditation to retain doctrinal autonomy with their faculty members. I have heard this referred to critically as “institutional in-breeding,” but I would also provide an alternative view. Some theological institutions hold to minority views on certain issues, so it can be somewhat difficult to put together professors that agree to certain beliefs that are not mainstream. Also, I think there is a biblical precedent to hiring graduates to become teachers. In Second Timothy 2:2, Paul said to Timothy, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Granted, the context here is referring to the local church, but is it too much of a stretch for this to apply to theological institutions?
- Degree Mills vs. Legitimate Theological Schools
One of the biggest challenges that graduates from unaccredited theological institutions may face is the perception that they earned their degree from a so-called “degree mill.” There are places that, for a small price, can give anyone a degree, even doctorates. In studying logic, students learn of the “guilt by association” fallacy, but unfortunately, many unaccredited schools are unfairly viewed as degree mills. Consider, however, that many college graduates (from accredited institutions even), particularly in fields like music and psychology, have a very difficult time finding a job in their field with just that degree under their belt. I say this because when approaching the issue of accreditation, we should not have this false dichotomy in mind that an accredited degree automatically makes for a great career, while unaccredited degrees make for poor careers. Furthermore, since many graduates of theological institutions will pursue a career with local churches, it should also be noted that even an accredited doctorate will not automatically guarantee a successful ministry. Plenty of pastors with the prefix, “Dr.” before their names have endured intense anguish as leaders of troublesome churches. At the same time, borrowing from the principle noted in my introduction, an accredited degree can open up more options, which may be enough of a reason to stick with an accredited degree path.
- Why Someone Would Not Pursue an Unaccredited Degree
As I mentioned in the introduction, my bachelor’s degree was nationally accredited (along with a master’s degree from the same institution), and to be honest, I am glad for it. One of the most important reasons for why someone should pursue an accredited degree is so that he/she can have the most possible options for further education. And for those that desire to serve in educational roles career-wise, it would be very challenging to do so with all unaccredited degrees. Still, there are some that have done quite well with an accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree, but an unaccredited doctorate (R.C. Sproul, James White, Tommy Ice, to name a few). They key issue centers on what someone desires to gain from a certain degree
- Why an Unaccredited Degree is Sometimes a Viable Option for Theological Education
For some people, it would not be a wise decision to pursue an unaccredited degree, such as those that want to teach at an accredited institution or want to be ordained in a denomination that requires certain accreditation standards in their education. But there are a lot of people that would do well to choose an unaccredited degree, as long as the program is rigorous and biblically-centered. In particular, pastors, missionaries, and Christian writers that desire to study the Bible with the instruction of teachers and fellow students can be greatly enriched by numerous unaccredited schools. Just because an institution is unaccredited, it does not necessarily mean that the professors are poor instructors in the Bible. From a personal perspective, I am interested in resuming my D.Min. program at an unaccredited seminary once I complete my M.A. (which is at a regionally accredited school). I don’t expect the D.Min. to help me gain entrance as a professor into an accredited seminary, but I do hope it will help enrich my knowledge of the Bible so that I can be a better writer and teacher. On the other hand, my career goal is to eventually teach history at the college level in accredited institutions, so that is why I am pursuing options for a Ph.D in history at accredited institutions. If I finish my D.Min., I would not consider it a useless degree, and I don’t think others should think that of their degrees from unaccredited schools if they were able to have learned more about God and His Word.
The question that some readers may be asking is, “Should I pursue an unaccredited degree?” Hopefully I made it clear that a good percentage of people should pursue a degree from an accredited institution. The most important reason has to do with career options. But there are also valid reasons why someone may want to forego the accredited program and stick with something else. It may be worthwhile to ask yourself, will an unaccredited degree potentially prohibit me from pursuing my career goals? For those that answer with a clear “yes,” then I think an accredited school is preferable. However, for those that are uncertain, it would probably be wise to contact people who are currently working in the career you desire (as well as employers, depending on the field), and ask them if an accredited degree (and specify if it needs to be regionally or nationally accredited) would be needed. If career goals are not hindered by an unaccredited degree, then the next question would be, which institution would best help me study the Bible? It very well may be an accredited school, but I don’t think an unaccredited school should be left out as a possibility. There are also other questions such as finances, flexibility, and doctrinal preferences, which could play a part in a wise decision. Additionally, while options are limited, I have heard of some accredited seminaries accepting graduates of unaccredited colleges into their programs–sometimes with a probationary period to start (this is definitely something to ask a prospective seminary, especially those that may be in the middle of an unaccredited degree). Altogether the choice of attending a theological school is not usually easy. Likewise, much of what I have said here is my opinion, but I have tried to back up my opinions with valid reasoning. I have greatly enjoyed being an advising professor at an unaccredited seminary. Many of the students there have put forward tremendous works of scholarship. And while an unaccredited college or seminary is not the right fit for everyone, I believe it is a viable option for some people.