In my travels for ATS, whenever a seat mate on an airplane asks me what I do for a living, telling them I work in accreditation invariably invites a second question: “What is accreditation?” It’s a fair question with no easy answers.
Overview of Accrediting
Accreditation is about quality assurance for various publics and ongoing improvement for theological schools, especially regarding student learning and formation. It is a voluntary process through which schools mutually assure one another’s educational quality with an eye toward ongoing improvement, based on standards. Through self-review, a school has regular opportunities to reflect intentionally on its distinctive strengths and its areas of desired growth in light of its unique mission and distinct context and in light of the standards. Self-review then supports the school’s efforts in planning, evaluation, and imagination. Through peer review, an accredited school is endorsed by its peers as one of quality and integrity, which affirms the school’s value to society, as well as its trustworthiness [from Preamble to 2020 Standards of Accreditation].
Commission on Accrediting
The body recognized as the accrediting agency for The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (“ATS”) is the Commission on Accrediting (“Commission”) of ATS, which is related to but separate from ATS. The current Commission membership includes more than 260 graduate theological schools in the United States and Canada who are Accredited Members. The purpose of the Commission is "to contribute to the enhancement and improvement of theological education through accreditation . . . [and to] collect data from all members . . . for use in accrediting" (Commission Bylaws, Section 1.2). The Commission is recognized by the United States Secretary of Education and by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Board of Commissioners
Acting on behalf of the Commission is the Board of Commissioners (“Board”), elected every two years by the membership with representatives from member institutions, ministry practitioners, and the public. The Board makes accreditation decisions based upon Commission-approved Standards of Accreditation, according to Commission-approved and Board-approved Policies and Procedures. The Board also uses other resources that it has adopted to guide its work, such as the Board-approved Self-Study Handbook. The resources included on this website are intended to help schools pursue and maintain accreditation in order to assure and advance quality theological education.
How to Become a Member of the Commission
As noted above, the Commission on Accrediting is related to but separate from The Association of Theological Schools. To become an Accredited Member of the Commission, one must first seek Associate Membership in the Association. Once a school has been approved for Associate Membership in the Association, it may then pursue membership in the Commission (see Guidelines for Achieving Initial Accreditation).