with Michael French
Dean of Academic Affairs
Faith Bible College International
While it isn’t the first analogy one might think of, an accreditation report is a story. It details how an institution fulfills its unique mission while upholding shared standards of excellence. It celebrates successes and identifies areas for growth. Accreditation is rooted in a desire to genuinely investigate, understand, reflect, and improve, encouraging an application of the scientific process to something we hold most dear: how our institution serves its most valuable stakeholders – our students.
Perhaps you are considering beginning an accreditation journey, or you have already begun and are reflecting on it. We sat down with Michael French, Dean of Academic Affairs, of Faith Bible College International (who is also an alumnus) to find out more about their journey.
About Faith Bible College International – Debt-Free Experience
Faith Bible College International was founded in 1959 (they recently celebrated 60 years), and established in rural Maine, as there was no school like it anywhere in the region. This beautiful location is unique in that it allows the 75 students to truly focus on their goal of preparing for ministry: “Because of the college’s location, there are no major distractions here. Students come to FBCI because they feel the call of God on their lives and they want to make an impact for His Kingdom.”
The residential campus consists of the Institute, chapel, gymnasium, and dorms, and Michael shared that these buildings are connected by hallways, which is a big plus in the winter and something students appreciate. Faith BCI is known for a family-like atmosphere, where students not only learn from professors, but also enjoy lunch and recreation. “We want the whole experience for the students, not just the academics, but feeling like a family, the relationships, the connecting.”
Faith BCI has a single focus and one program, Theological Studies. A one year certificate program is offered, and students can earn an associates or bachelor’s degree as well. Minor concentrations are available, in the areas of Pastoral Theology, Missions, Christian Education, and Worship & Music. Faith BCI works with students for a debt-free experience, so day one as a graduate there are no loans to repay.
Students serve in local churches, and once a semester participate in the Impact Program, where all students go across the eastern seaboard for ten days in different ministries and get hands-on experience.
Why be Accredited? For Students
With over 60 years of educating, we asked Michael what prompted Faith BCI to pursue accreditation with the Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission (ABHE). “Ultimately we did it for our students.” Becoming accredited will open more opportunities for students after graduation, as well as making Title IV grants available to create a truly debt-free experience.
Around 2000, alumni began reporting challenges pursuing further education without accredited degrees. Also, as they began looking for positions outside of the northeast, those ministries didn’t know Faith BCI as well and were more reluctant to hire without an accredited degree. The FBCI team all had their students’ best interests at heart, and knew they could find a solution.
In 2010 Faith BCI met with ABHE to learn what it would take to become accredited, and the ABHE team made a couple initial suggestions, specifically to grow the library to 30,000 resources and to make sure faculty had the appropriate credentials. Unfortunately the cost was insurmountable at that time, and Faith BCI tried some other avenues, including pursuing a non-CHEA accreditation and creating a bachelor’s degree. While these actions helped students, it was decided that the best way forward was to pursue ABHE accreditation.
Process – Slow and Steady Wins the Race
One piece of advice anyone will give around accreditation is to expect it to take around 8 years. Being thorough, reflective, and patient makes it go smoothly. Faith BCI is working on the following timeline:
- 2018: Faculty began working on obtaining accredited degrees
- 2018: Began drafting the Eligibility document
- 2019: Applied for Applicant status
- 2020: Utilized online resources to grow the library
- Accepted, first full year as Applicants
- Began using Weave to build the Compliance Document and store
- Moved the program online due to COVID
- 2022: Draft Self Study narrative and evidence, formulating assessment plans, collecting data, finish action plan for using data
- 2022: Submit Self Study for Candidate status
- 2023: Visiting team from ABHE
- 2024: Hopefully Candidate status; begin application process for Title IV
- 2028: Fully accredited
Challenges and Surprises
One amazing part of the ABHE community is the willingness to share and help solve challenges. In that spirit, we asked Michael to share some of Faith BCI’s challenges and things that surprised him.
While writing the Eligibility document, Michael shared “We learned we didn’t have a good plan or process for assessment.” Having to codify current processes helped show where gaps were and they made plans to improve. “Make sure what you’re assessing has value – you can’t assess every single thing. Then make sure you are meeting what you say you are.” It always comes back to the students.
He said one of the biggest challenges that was also a surprise was discovering Faith BCI’s governance was not aligned with ABHE standards. After so many years operating one way, it was hard to reinvent something so ingrained. “But, we really wanted to be accredited for the students, and so we knew we had to change some things.” Some board and employee positions had to be restructured, and this was time consuming because it was important to have thoughtful discussion and debate about how to do it right. Fortunately there is ABHE training on this very topic, as well as consultants. Michael adds that the team found a lot of value in the process: “Going through that has helped us think through lots of processes, always asking is this the best way?” Which is one goal of accreditation – reflection.
Most schools would say the last couple of years have posed many challenges around Covid-19, and Faith BCI is no different. They had never wanted to have the program entirely online, and suddenly that was the only option. Fortunately however, a few courses had online options the year prior, so the tools were already in use. Faculty new to teaching online adapted quickly and positively, and overall it was a good experience.
As far as surprises, Michael said they were all assuming they could accelerate the timing. He used a wonderful analogy: “I know the moon is big, I can look up and I can see it… but I have no idea how big it actually is without going there.” The checklist to become accredited really does take 8 years!
Michael was appreciative of all he has learned so far in the process, so we asked him to share some of the things he thought might help others.
Having a unified campus community around becoming accredited is key. “Make sure there’s alignment across the institution about the decision to pursue accreditation. For us, it was clear that the point was to benefit the students. If you have resistance, it’s best to solve that before.”
Accreditation requires a lot of resources, in time, talents, and funding. Be sure to create reasonable timelines with cushions; rushing the process causes mistakes, and it will take longer. Setting out with a budget makes things much less stressful, and ensures resources are available. Also, don’t underestimate the amount of writing that will be needed; documenting processes and writing narrative in a way that reviewers clearly understand is critical.
When beginning, Michael found it helpful to go through the Essential Elements for ABHE (or minimum requirements depending on your accreditor) and where there are gaps, work on those first. Also, start assessing at least some things as early as possible, because that data will help you going forward. It’s an interactive process, but starting is the most important step.
And finally, use the process to learn and reflect. “Completing the Eligibility Document was actually really helpful, because it was a good taste of what it would be like to go through accreditation.” Every time changes were made, it helped Faith BCI examine other processes proactively. One of our favorite things he shared was actually about being interviewed for this piece: “It has helped me reflect on the journey and remember some of the wins we’ve already had along the way.”
Best of all, through accreditation Faith BCI discovered an entire new network: “Accreditation also exposed us to a community during the pandemic.” These like-minded colleagues are happy to share, help, and support throughout and beyond the process.
Right now Faith BCI is working on the Self Study narrative and evidence for submission this fall. This includes formulating an assessment plan, collecting data, and drafting the action plan by this summer. Hopefully a visiting team will come in fall of 2023 and in 2024 they will be candidates for accreditation, having full accreditation in 2028. Stay tuned for part two of this case study, which will have the rest of the story!