FREESTANDING THEOLOGICAL DISTANCE
AND THE QUESTION OF ACCREDITATION:
What Every Prospective Student Should Know
A WHITE PAPER
by Dennis D. Frey. Th.D.
Accreditation as applied to this paper: Accreditation granted to an institution of higher learning
by an accrediting agency approved by the United States Department of Education (USDE).
My reason for writing this paper: A White Paper is generally understood as a policy statement
designed to explain an otherwise complex issue, and in so doing help readers to understand that issue as a prerequisite to making a decision. In business, the purpose of a White Paper is often
to set forth a position, clarify an issue or establish a base of understanding.
Therefore, my reason for writing and labeling this as a White Paper is to use that common purpose to argue for the
legitimacy of high quality unaccredited theological distance education institutions as alternatives to accredited programs of similar purpose. A concomitant goal is to attempt to clarify the murky waters of misunderstanding, disinformation, and distrust that emanates from a
general myopia that has too long clouded public vision on the subject of freestanding theological distance education institutions and the question of accreditation.
My qualifications for writing this paper: I am an ordained minister (1978 by the Church of the
Nazarene, and 1991 by the Missionary Church, Inc. USA). From 1973 to 1989, I served in pastoral ministry. Since 1989, I have served full-time in Christian higher education at the
post-secondary level in positions ranging from professor, vice president, and president.
My undergraduate degree was earned at Nazarene Bible College (accredited at the time by ABHE which is recognized by USDE);
my M.Min., M.Div., D.Min. and Th.D. were earned at Trinity Theological Seminary (unaccredited); my M.B.A. and D.B.A. were earned at California Coast University (accredited by DEAC which is recognized
by USDE), but the school was unaccredited at the time that I earned the degrees.
During my years in Christian higher education, I have been actively involved in accreditation related issues. I have
served three times as an accreditation quest chairman, and once as an onsite evaluation chairman. Over a period of several years, I worked at the national level on accreditation related
projects with two accrediting agencies. In connection with this work, I met on occasions with officials at the Accreditation Agency Evaluation Department at the U.S. Department of Education in
My biases reflected in this paper: First, I serve on the advisory board of the Council of Private
Colleges of America (CPCA). The CPCA is a certification agency for Christian institutions of higher learning. A primary goal of the CPCA is to provide high quality peer review for
postsecondary Christian institutions. The CPCA peer review process is as academically rigorous as accreditation, but without the restrictive limitations associated with meeting the USDE’s
nonacademic bureaucratically imposed administrative and fiscal burdens (such as those associated with qualifying to receive Title IV Federal student aid).
Second, I am unapologetically opposed to the notion that men and women training for local church ministry (especially those already serving who are
seeking additional ministry education), are always best served by earning a degree only from an accredited institution. I am not against accredited institutions, I am just opposed to
the idea that only accredited institutions are valid.
Third, I am unapologetically opposed to the notion that men and women training for local church ministry (especially those just starting out), are well
served by earning a degree from an easy short-cut alternative that focuses on the vanity of obtaining credentials rather than the hard work of gaining knowledge, and earning credibility.
Fourth, I have already heard all of the arguments on both sides of the accreditation issue. I am especially resistant to those suggesting that all
accredited schools are superior to all unaccredited schools. On the opposite side, I acknowledge my antipathy toward those shady rascals who duck under the cover of religious freedom to give
the greedy and the lazy what they want – a degree on the cheap.
Fifth, I am the president of Master’s International University of Divinity (MIUD). MIUD is an unaccredited, and CPCA certified institution that is
also an affiliated (but unaccredited) member of the Association for Biblical Higher Education (a USDE approved accreditation agency).
Freestanding Theological Distance Education programs were born out of necessity. Early on, they came into existence to fill the
vacuum left by campus-based programs that were principally designed to train men and women locally in a face-to-face classroom setting. Campus-based, face-to-face programs remain the most
effective method of theological education for young people, and in most cases, a superior method for older adults who do not possess the background or skills required to study successfully in a less
structured learning environment (such as online learning).
In spite of the benefits, campus-based programs have never been able to meet the continuing education needs of those already serving in ministry.
This is largely because the benefits of campus-based programs are also the limitations. Class size and location are severely restrictive realities. Most men and women serving in ministry
do not live conveniently close to a campus-based program, and if they do, they usually find traditional class hours impractical. In the past, traditional schools tried to address this by night
and weekend classes, but the fundamental problem of being rooted in one place remained.
Until the advent of the Internet, so-called adult education programs barely made a dent in the need. Freestanding innovative programs filled the
vacuum. In the early days, those freestanding programs were called “correspondence schools,” and widely disparaged; especially by the institutions they competed against. Still, they
persisted, and did so because they met an otherwise unfulfilled need.
Fast forward to today, and practically all campus-based institutions also have “distance education” programs (the term “correspondence studies” is
dead). They have these programs primarily because the freestanding theological distance education (correspondence study) programs of the past proved the need, and paved the way.
What many accredited campus-based institutions mocked as substandard methods not many years ago; they now fully embrace. While such programs were
demanded by the marketplace, they are also highly profitable. By connecting the distance education model to their campus-based programs, traditional institutions are able to reach more students
at less cost.
However, while distance education programs are very profitable for accredited campus-based programs, they are not very profitable for the unaccredited
institutions that pioneered them. I am referring to the unaccredited distance education schools that were, and remain on an academic par with the accredited campus-based institutions (and their
accredited distance programs).
Caveat: This does not apply to the cheap so-called colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries, which are academic
shams. They are highly profitable for an obvious reason - they have no significant operating costs.
The highly creditable, though unaccredited institutions have always struggled financially, and also for obvious reasons; they take no Federal Title IV
funds, they are usually not associated with a denomination or other funding organization, and they rarely have endowments or receive significant financial contributions.
Additionally, they have lower tuition, but a higher ratio of operating expenses because they actually operate as an academic institution not a paper
factory. They also experience a higher percentage of tuition delinquency because for the most part, their tuition payment plans are self-funded, and dependent upon the integrity of the student
for timely payment.
One may then ask, “If there is no financial gain in it, why do they exist?” Often such programs start out as an extension of a passion of
one or more likeminded individuals, and therefore exist for the same reasons that missions of passion and vision have always existed. Such institutions often have courses and degree programs
that other institutions do not have, and therefore meet a niche need. Often what begins as a niche need later becomes a mainstream idea, such as how the early pioneers of theological
correspondence study laid the foundation for today’s wide acceptance of Biblical counseling as an academic discipline, and an accepted ministry of the local church.
A little known blessing that pioneering unaccredited theological distance education schools have given to accredited institutions is in the form of some
of their most innovative and capable leaders. In recent years, accredited campus-based schools have recognized the high level of scholarship and self-discipline required to graduate from the
best of the unaccredited freestanding schools, and have found “exemptions” for hiring graduates of these school.
Within accredited campus-based institutions such remarkable graduates serve at all levels of Christian higher education as president, vice president,
administrator, and professor. It may not be widely known, but it is a fact, and they have brought fresh ideas, zeal for the Lord, and vision unshackled by convention. They also bring with
them the energy of individuals who excel not by credentials, but by personal ability. Ability still matters!
In addition, tens of thousands of lay leaders, denominational leaders, missionaries, pastors, evangelists, parachurch leaders, and Biblical counselors
have earned their academic credentials through high quality unaccredited freestanding distance education schools, and are serving the Kingdom of God in remarkably effective ways.
However, there are changes afoot that will almost surely shake the ground upon which the dominance of accreditation has long rested. Recently, the
Academic Vice President of the school where I serve as president reported to me his conversation with a prospective student who expressed delight that our tuition was a third less than the tuition of
another institution. Then he asked about accreditation. When told that we were not accredited he said, “So, that’s why your tuition is so much lower.” He was
There are three primary reasons why tuition at accredited institutions is so high. First, because of the high cost of compliance
(and keeping accreditation once it is granted), that has nothing to do with academics; second, because of the high cost of maintaining either a campus-based or even just an online operation; third,
because the tuition rate is based on the maximum amount of Federal Title IV money available to the institution via the student (including the maximum guaranteed student loan which currently averages
about $10,000 per year. The fact is, the primary driver of such high tuition rates is the cost of compliance with accreditation requirements (many of which have nothing to do with academic
Currently, the total outstanding government-backed student loan debt in the United States exceeds $1.2 trillion! Graduates are drowning in debt
before they ever get a job! The problem is so acute, that USDE is trying to limit what accredited institutions can charge for tuition based on a general estimate of what a particular degree can
fetch as an average salary following graduation. As one would expect, accrediting agencies and their member schools are putting up stiff resistance.
Now consider the case of a colleague who was told that his Ed.D. from a high quality unaccredited school could be legitimized by earning a Ph.D. from a
regionally accredited institution. The cost of doing so was in excess of $60,000, almost all of which was borrowed. He borrowed the money, and then lost his job. He is now trying to
tread water in an ocean of debt with the millstone of the balance and accumulating interest of a $60,000 guaranteed student loan hanging around his neck. His case is not unusual. Don't
ever fall victim to the idea that an accredited degree is a meal ticket!
The perils of seeking accreditation are real, and an unwise quest to “be there with the rest,” can destroy a great school. Take the case of one of
America’s best known freestanding theological distance education seminaries (the facts are real, the name is withheld out of respect for the institution). This school was a pioneer in the
field, having graduated thousands with great success. Academically, they were on a par with the best-known campus-based seminaries. They spent more than $6 million in about six years,
only to be denied because they could not raise enough capital reserve (they had spent most of it trying to get accreditation). The school now recruits little more than 10% of what it previously
enrolled, has been forced to lay off dozens of staff and faculty, and faces the very real threat of filing for bankruptcy. Their case is not unusual.
Accreditation Factoid - In order for unaccredited schools to achieve accreditation, they must meet the same basic academic
standards as do accredited schools. This demonstrates that high quality unaccredited schools can operate on an academic par with accredited schools without actually having
It is common for high quality theological distance education institutions that are not accredited to be asked the following question. “Your
school has such a good reputation, well-qualified faculty, great programs, and very reasonable tuition. Why are you not accredited?” Well, here is their answer. “We have
gained a good reputation, well-qualified faculty, great programs, and very reasonable tuition without ever being accredited. If we were accredited, we would have no better reputation, no better
faculty, and no better programs. However, there is one thing that would be significantly different; we would no longer have very reasonable tuition! Tuition would be many times greater,
and you probably could not afford it unless you went deeply into debt.”
If the perils of seeking accreditation are real, so are the perils of having it. Recently in a letter to its supporting churches, one of America’s
best small campus-based four-year Christian colleges warned that the institution would be facing hard choices in the days to come as USDE through its recognized regional accrediting agency would be
imposing social and sexual oriented agendas that would challenge the fundamental Biblical values of the college. The perils of these agendas are real, and all accredited Christian institutions
are going to be making hard choices in the near future.
Such perils are not limited to accredited Christian institutions. Accrediting agencies are also nervous; particularly the two USDE recognized
agencies that hold to a conservative Bible-based worldview viz. the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) and the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools
These two fine accrediting agencies have impeccable records of supporting and promoting Bible-based higher education. However, they are dependent
upon recognition by the USDE for their existence, and the schools they accredit are dependent upon the Title IV money that flows to them via their accreditation. Cut off USDE recognition to the
accrediting agency, and you cut off the flow of money to its member institutions. The perils are real, and both agencies are quietly, but diligently keeping their member institutions aware of the
challenges ahead, and I sincerely pray for their success.
Imagine the following possibility. A disgruntled student brings charges of bigotry, hate-speech, or other imagined violations of civil rights
against a Christian college. The charges work their way quickly to the accrediting agency (that is the procedure). The accrediting agency has no choice but to require the college to
comply with Federal requirements for institutions receiving Title IV monies.
If the college complies, the problem goes away, but in doing so; they may be required to violate their fundamental Biblical values. If they do not
comply, the problem of violating their Biblical values goes away, but they may lose their accreditation. The college is then faced with a serious dilemma, as several hundreds (or even
thousands) of innocent students must rely upon grants, scholarships and loans to continue their studies. Take away the accreditation because of one disgruntled student, and you take away the
funding for all of the others. The very existence of the college is then in jeopardy. This is not hyperbole, it is already happening.
On the surface, it may seem that the way to avoid the dilemma is to be accredited, but not take Federal Title IV monies. That is a pipe dream.
The high cost of obtaining, and then keeping accreditation once granted, along with the demands of students wanting and needing student financial aid, creates a vicious circle. There is no
avoiding it. The alternative is to walk away from accreditation, and for most campus-based Christian school, that would mean shutting their doors.
It is right to declare for eternal truth. On the other hand, what do you do when dozens of staff and faculty along with hundreds or even thousands
of students could be disenfranchised in the bargain? History suggests that most would try to reach a compromise, but once a compromise is reached, the Biblical integrity of the college may have
been compromised, no matter how insistent is the argument to the contrary.
The above illustration is not simply an anecdotal possibility, as I have noted, it is happening, and there is worse to come. The trend suggests that
during the next decade, hundreds of small (and not so small) accredited Christian colleges, universities and seminaries may be forced to drop their accreditation because they will not be able to meet
USDE’s currently unrealistic financial accountability requirements. Others will have to decide whether the price of accreditation is worth the loss of Biblical integrity. It will not
happen all at once, but it will happen, and is already happening.
How all of this will play out for accrediting agencies such as ABHE and TRACS is, of course, unknown. The future is uncertain, and it will take a
full measure of exceptional leadership to navigate through the coming storm.
In the meantime, adult learners are turning with greater confidence to high quality unaccredited freestanding institutions for their continuing ministry
education needs. This is encouraging, because it suggests that a wholesome trend may be emerging – a trend toward life-long learning that values knowledge and the discipline acquired in pursuit
of that knowledge, more highly than whether the institution is or is not accredited. This is not to suggest that accreditation will become unimportant. It is just to suggest that the
trend seems to indicate that it may not continue to dominate as the most important factor.
So how does all of this distill into a few cogent bullet points for prospective students who may already be serving in ministry, but seeking to further their ministry education?
Consider the following:
For the most part, Christian ministry is one of those areas of service where what you do is far more important than what
you or a diploma suggests you might be able to do. There is still a lot of room for “doers, and not hearers only.”
Earning a degree from a high quality unaccredited school may provide a learning opportunity equal to that of an accredited school at a fraction of the
cost of tuition and fees.
Yes, within Christian ministry, there are some areas of service that are not open unless the applicant has a degree from an accredited institution. That
is neither good nor bad; it is just that way.
The entire universe of accreditation is in a state of change, and it is reasonable to expect that in the not-too-distant future, academic institutions may
turn to accreditation alternatives, such as certification or school-to-school peer review (which is originally, what accreditation was intended to be).
In the meantime, ministers seeking additional theological education, and laymen seeking to train for ministry, should consider the benefits of enrolling
in a high quality unaccredited distance education program.
For everyone seeking additional theological education, there is one thing that ought to be avoided, and that is waiting too long to make a decision
(whether to enroll in an accredited or high quality unaccredited program). Life happens quickly, opportunity passes like a phantom, and time lost can never be recovered. “Whatever you do,
do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Colossians 3:23 NASV).
Finally, if there is anything I have learned about the kinds of men and women who graduate from high quality unaccredited theological
distance education programs it is this; they are highly disciplined and independent self-starters who love a challenge, and are eager to learn something that they can teach to the benefit of
others. In fact, they echo in their lives Paul’s ministry education mandate to Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful
men who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2 NASV). May God increase their tribe a thousand fold!