The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is in the midst of an ambitious project – the first redevelopment of its accrediting standards in nearly a quarter-century. The work will eventually affect every theological school – perhaps as soon as 2022, when the new standards may go into effect.
A great place to begin thinking about the history and philosophy of accreditation for theological schools is the interview with Daniel O. Aleshire in the New Year 2013 issue of In Trust. Aleshire describes how theological accreditation has evolved since 1936.
In the article, Aleshire addresses some of the concerns that schools often have during accreditation visits. For example, do some of the questions seem strange or inapplicable? The answer may be yes, because the same federal statutes apply to every post-secondary institution in the United States, whether a six-month program at a barbering school or a Ph.D. program at a seminary, and the same questions must be asked in each case.
Aleshire notes that every school must publish a statement of educational effectiveness, which usually includes the percentage of students who complete a degree or the percentage who find appropriate jobs upon graduation. Theological institutions often struggle with this aspect of the process – some track their graduates fairly closely, but many do not. In addition, many theological schools consider the “discernment process” to be part of their mission. Students sometimes discover in seminary that they are not called to ministry, but in such cases the school may still be fulfilling its mission, even if summative statistics, without interpretation, paint a negative picture.
Whether your school’s next accreditation visits take place before or after 2022, both articles are well worth consideration and discussion within any group entrusted with oversight of your school’s future.