Accreditation affects distance-learning options

Why do some schools offer more distance learning programs than others? And why can’t you earn a master of divinity degree fully online at SBC seminaries?
Accreditation is a large part of the answer to these and other questions related to higher education.

The term “accreditation” refers to a school receiving an official stamp of approval from an agency certified by the U.S. Department of Education, state governments or the non-governmental Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The practice serves as a form of quality control for graduate and undergraduate education.

All six Southern Baptist seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), a national accrediting agency for graduate-level theological education, and by regional accrediting agencies that monitor both graduate and undergraduate education in different sections of the country.

“ATS accreditation is the most broadly affirmed across religious communities in the United States and Canada and in fact has some recognition outside of North America by other schools and agencies,” Daniel Aleshire, ATS executive director, told the TEXAN. “So there is a certain value in having a degree from an ATS accredited school.”

Currently ATS standards permit accredited schools to offer up to two-thirds of a master of divinity through extension centers and online. Half of a master of arts may be earned through extension centers and online. No ATS-approved degree can be earned entirely online.

However, ATS does permit member schools to offer entire degrees at sites away from the main campus if those sites are determined to have adequate library facilities, administrative services and faculty.

For example, ATS granted approval for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to offer entire degrees at its Houston campus. And Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary has five campuses throughout the western U.S. where students may earn entire degrees—Mill Valley, Calif.; Brea, Calif.; Vancouver, Wash.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Denver, Colo.

“The main difference” between Southwestern’s Houston campus and its extension centers is that Houston “has the requirements that a degree-offering institution should have such as full-time faculty that are on site, a library of sufficient size that’s on site,” Jim Wicker, director of web-based education at Southwestern, told the TEXAN. “We provide all the services that a student needs … They’re able to do everything at that campus.”

In contrast, Wicker said that “at the extensions, there are faculty that commute in either from Fort Worth or … local adjuncts that drive in. They come in and teach the course, but they don’t have office hours.”

Rick Durst, director of online education at Golden Gate, said his seminary uses five campuses in order to provide contextualized education and encourage ministers to stay on the field rather than moving away to attend seminary. Too often those who move to a seminary campus never return to the remote areas from which they were called to minister, he said.

“If someone feels called to the northwest, the southwest, Colorado or Arizona, it’s so much more effective for them to be trained on site—where they’re engaged in ministry, making relationships, seeing how ministry works in that context—than it is to train them somewhere else and then try to apply that in a context that’s different,” Durst told the TEXAN.

Because ATS does not permit theological degrees to be earned fully online, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s online master of arts in theological studies is not ATS accredited. Instead, it is offered through the seminary’s undergraduate college and accredited only by the regional Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Undergraduate colleges of SBC seminaries are not limited by ATS restrictions regarding distance education and may offer online degrees. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Boyce College, for example, offers a bachelor of arts entirely online.

Midwestern President R. Philip Roberts told the TEXAN that the online master’s degree is a way of ministering to those who need theological education but cannot access an extension center or the Kansas City, Mo., campus.

“This is a good way to provide and facilitate online education for people in remote areas especially that don’t have the advantage of seminary education,” Roberts said in an interview. “We obviously cannot provide enough extension centers across the United States and certainly around the world to service everyone who would like to have access to theological education. It’s a way of ministering to and helping those who would like to have the advantages of a good quality seminary and/or college theological education and yet have no ability to get to it physically.”

Rodney Harrison, Midwestern’s vice president for institutional effectiveness, emphasized that the online master’s degree is accredited by the same agency that accredits major colleges and universities in the Midwest. To earn accreditation, he said the seminary had to demonstrate that the quality of its online degree was comparable to the quality of a degree earned on campus.

Midwestern is working with ATS to develop pilot projects in online education, Harrison said.

According to Aleshire, who taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1978 to 1990, ATS is in the process of reviewing its standards for online education and will have a first draft of new policies in the fall that likely will permit member schools to offer online master’s degrees. Schools will respond to it in subsequent drafts before voting on a final proposal in 2012.

However, he speculated that the new policies would maintain an on-campus requirement for the master of divinity.

“The requirement for residency has emerged from the assumption that an M.Div. or a professional M.A., a degree that’s equipping people for ministry with others, involves issues related to personhood, to character, to Christian spirituality and that those are issues that are discerned and learned more effectively in community kinds of contexts,” Aleshire said.

No changes in ATS standards will be adopted until 2012, though, and must be approved by two-thirds of ATS member schools.

Currently, no graduate degree at any school that is entirely online is accredited by ATS. Still, other accrediting bodies allow online degrees at all levels of higher education.

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