The Association of Theological Schools Commission on Accrediting is the primary accrediting agency for graduate-level theological schools. But accrediting can be a confusing issue — not just for senior administrators, for whom it is a primary concern, but also for board members and faculty, who may be only peripherally part of the accrediting process.
Earlier this year, In Trust had questions about accrediting that could only be answered by going straight to the experts. We approached Tom Tanner and his colleagues at the ATS Commission on Accrediting and asked them to share some of their wisdom. — Editor
1 Why are some theological schools accredited by the ATS Commission on Accrediting and others are accredited by other agencies?
The ATS Commission on Accrediting currently accredits 255 schools. Of those, 224 institutions are in the United States. And of those 224 American schools, 55 are accredited only by ATS and not jointly by ATS and another accrediting organization.
Another 158 American institutions are accredited both by ATS and by a regional accrediting agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). An additional 11 have another kind of dual accreditation — they are accredited by both ATS and by faith-based accrediting agency — either the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) or the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS).
The final 31 accredited theological schools are Canadian. Canada has no regional accrediting agencies, so ATS, ABHE, and TRACS are the only accreditation options for these schools, though some provincial governments provide quality assurance for theological schools
You may wonder why schools seek accreditation from more than one accrediting body.
If a U.S. theological school is embedded in a larger university, or if it offers both undergraduate and graduate programs, then the school will most likely seek regional accreditation (or accreditation from ABHE or TRACS) that covers undergraduate programs. ATS accredits only graduate institutions and approves graduate degrees in theology and ministry.
Seminaries that do not have undergraduate programs may nevertheless seek regional accreditation because they see it as prestigious, or they may believe that it helps their graduates get into doctoral programs.
On the other hand, the 30 percent of ATS schools that are eligible for regional accreditation but do not have it may view dual accreditation as unnecessary and expensive. No ATS school has given up ATS accreditation in favor of regional accreditation, perhaps because they see ATS as more understanding and supportive of theological education than others accrediting bodies. We hope that’s the case.
2 Who creates the accrediting standards?
In the United States, accreditation is not a direct function of the government, but rather is done by nonprofit associations. Each accrediting agency sets its own standards that are approved either by that agency’s own decision making body (called a “commission” or “board”) or by that agency’s member schools. ATS standards are approved by our membership, not by our Board of Commissioners.
All accrediting agencies require that accredited schools have, among other things, qualified faculty, sufficient finances, and a focus on student success and institutional integrity. Moreover, every five years, accrediting agencies must demonstrate to the U.S. Department of Education that they (the agencies) are holding member schools to their standards.
3 What happens when a school fails to meet one or more standards?
The accrediting agency issues the school a public sanction — a warning, probation, or a “show cause” order — specifying which standards have not been met. The agency then requires the school to provide, in a timely manner, convincing reasons why accreditation should not be withdrawn. Schools are generally given two years to demonstrate that they meet the standards, or their accreditation can be withdrawn. An accrediting agency may give a school an additional year to meet the standards if it’s determined that there is “good cause” for the extra time.
4 Does ATS publicize information about schools that have not met the standards?
All accrediting decisions are posted on our website (ats.edu/member-schools/member-school-list) under each school’s name. The least severe public sanction is a warning, or what we call a “notation.” Any school given a notation can appeal that action, so we don’t list the notation on our website until any appeal is resolved.
5 Most schools are given 10-year renewals of their accreditation, but some receive shorter renewal periods. Why?
Seven years is the maximum period for initial accreditation, and 10 years is the maximum for a reaffirmation of accreditation. During the last decade or so, a quarter to a third of all renewals have been for shorter than the maximum.
When that happens, our board always tells a school why it is being renewed for fewer than 10 years. These shorter renewal periods are often the result of financial or administrative instability, which sometimes go hand in hand.
6 What are some trends that ATS has been seeing recently?
Perhaps the most encouraging trend is that schools are much more effective at assessing student learning than in the past. And since student learning is at the heart of our member schools’ missions, that is a major advance.
Another encouraging trend is that schools are being much more creative and innovative in their educational programs — for example, there are more partnerships with constituent churches and more new high-quality online programs. Another trend is the increasing number of mergers or consolidations among ATS schools. Since the 2008 recession, there has been about one merger every three or four months among our member schools. In many cases, we see mergers as positive because they offer give struggling schools new ways and new resources to fulfill their missions.
On the challenging side, many schools are still struggling financially, and a significant number are still challenged to demonstrate diversity among their faculty and boards that mirrors the diversity of the world in which their students are engaged.
7 In a freestanding seminary, what is the role of a board during the accrediting process?
A self-study process precedes a comprehensive evaluation for initial accreditation or reaffirmation of accreditation. Our self-study handbook and workshops encourage trustees to be involved in this process — it’s an opportunity for a school to take a serious collective look at itself. Trustees should use what is learned through the self-study process to help the school improve in achieving its mission.
During an accreditation visit, the evaluation committee’s interview with trustees is one of the ways that the committee can learn whose hand is on the tiller, and what direction the school is going.
8 At an embedded school, what’s the role of the advisory board or committee in the accrediting process? What’s the role of the university board?
While advisory boards do not usually have overall decision-making authority, they can play important roles. They should be part of the self-study process and use what is learned to help the school better achieve its mission. One role for an advisory board can be to help the faculty review assessment results to see what students are learning and how well the education mission is being achieved. As for a university board, while they have more areas of responsibility than a freestanding seminary board, they often have at least one committee focused on the seminary, and that committee can serve roles similar to what is described above.
9 What do you wish that boards knew about accrediting?
First, that ATS is in the process of revising the Standards of Accrediting. Updates about the revision process appeared in both the New Year and Spring 2019 issues of In Trust. We expect that the ATS member schools will vote on the new standards at the Biennial Meeting in June 2020.
Second, that accrediting is a peer-review process that helps each school better achieve its mission. Why would a board not want to be involved in that?
Updates about the revision of the ATS Standards: www.ats.edu/accrediting/overview-accrediting/