Here's a common problem in some Christian circles: having a degree from an unaccredited institution that you can't do anything with. My goal in this post is to show you that you actually can overcome some of the problems caused by unaccredited degrees.
Let me first say that I do think that unaccredited institutions can play a role in theological education in the U.S. I don't think that they are all of poor quality or that they don't produce effective alumni. However, there are a couple of key reasons that I don't recommend potential students to attend an unaccredited college or seminary.
Reason 1:The Degree Itself - Having a degree from an unaccredited college or seminary can hurt your chances of getting a job in ministry or elsewhere. You can be sure that it will hurt you getting a job teaching or elsewhere in academia (unless you're teaching at another unaccredited school).
Reason 2: Continuing Education - It will severely limit your choices if you want to continue towards a masters or doctoral degree if your education is based solely on education from unaccredited institutions. There are ways around this, as we'll see.
Reason 3: Lack of Transparency/Responsibility - One of the main reasons for accreditation is to ensure that financial statements are in order and that there is a 3rd party reviewing the records. Some unaccredited institutions have good accountability in their finances, but many don't. It's one of those things that costs "extra" money and they're usually strapped for cash as it is. However, having an outside auditor look at your institution's statements makes it safer for the students and employees. While most unaccredited schools are NOT degree mills, some are. Some are scams just waiting to get your money. Knowing that the college or seminary you're giving your personal information to (and your money) is being overseen by outside parties, to me, is very comforting. Despite what some may say, accreditation's oversight is not concerned with what you school believes. The college's doctrinal statement, vision, or mission aren't considered during such evaluations.
Reason 4: You Get What You Pay For - Going to an unaccredited school is CHEAP. That's one reason it is so appealing for many. Some of these schools have high-caliber professors that are academically qualified to teach wherever they wanted. This is generally the exception. Most have all or most of their professors that have their degrees from their own school. I call this academic inbreeding and it is rarely helpful to the students or the organization as a whole. Having spoken with many students from what I would consider the "upper-tier" of unaccredited schools, I can say that there certainly is a difference in the academic rigor and quality of education between a decent accredited school and an unaccredited one.
How to Overcome the Circumstances
Now, onto the part that I hope will be really helpful to you if you've gone to an unaccredited school. I can't really do anything about Reason 4, but we can look at Reasons 1-3 and get some ideas on how to make the best of it.
Overcoming Reason 1: Look for a Degree not Transfer Credits- Let's do a little scenario. Let's say you have a bachelor's degree from a decent unaccredited institution. You are actually more likely to have your degree accepted as a completed Bachelors for admissions into a graduate program than you would be to have those credits transfer in. Whenever I speak to someone from an unaccredited institution that is distraught because they're being denied a job because of their unaccredited degree, I tell them to look at some Master of Arts programs. Most M.A. programs are 36 or so credits and most bachelor programs are 120-130. You would be fortunate to get 1/2 of your credits transferred into a bachelors program, so you do the math - 60 or so credits on the undergrad level to get another bachelors or 36 or so credits on the graduate level to get an accredited masters degree.
Overcoming Reason 2: Look for Affiliations - Although part of the solution to this one was covered above, I think it also crucial to point out that most decent unaccredited institutions will be "feeder schools" for accredited seminaries or graduate schools. An example of this is Pensacola Christian College. Although they are seeking accreditation currently, they've been around a while without any accreditation and they've done well for themselves in terms of number of students and programs. What they've done (or perhaps their alumni have done) is to develop informal relationships with other graduate schools and seminaries. While this is sometimes done through formal articulation agreements, more often it is a game of "Well we've accepted 20 students from here in the past, so we better consider this one too." Registrars don't want to get in trouble any more than the rest of us. Therefore, if you know going in of a person or two that they've excepted from your school, it probably will help your situation to mention that. Just like judges look at past cases to determine the outcome of the present one, Registrars look at both what they've done in the past and what their colleagues have done. Getting a list from your unaccredited school of accredited institutions their graduates have attended is along those same lines and makes the Registrar feel like he/she is in good company.
Overcoming Reason 3: Get Me a Pen - This one is tricky. Most won't ever have a problem with this, but I know from experience that some of you will. Due to possible inconsistencies in policy or the very real possibility of the school closing its doors for good, you have to have the important stuff in writing. It's not rude to ask for your graduation plan in writing and signed by the Registrar of Academic Dean - it's being responsible. Getting and keeping correspondence or signed & dated degree check sheets is a good idea. It's a good idea at any institution but especially at an unaccredited one. I dealt with one particular student several years ago that stated that even though the transcript stated that it was a 0 hour class, it was actually a 3 hour one (this was based on a conversation they had with the unaccredited institution's President). Obviously, I can't just go by what a student tells me. I called the school only to find out that they had closed. The student was out of luck. I believed what she was telling me, but I have to have documentation so that I and the institution I work for doesn't get in trouble.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, I'm not against unaccredited institutions playing a role in theological education, but we all need to be aware of the potential pit falls. I'd love to hear your own experiences and thoughts - good or bad - concerning unaccredited education.
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.