Protestant Diploma Mills

Alan Contreras

In the eighteen years that I have worked in higher education, including ten years as an academic program evaluator, I have never encountered a Catholic diploma mill. Well, I do know of one literally Byzantine e ntity in Minnesota, but broadly speaking, all bottom-feeder unaccredited colleges that issue substandard religious degrees are Protestant.

They are not Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Quaker, and, if nominally Baptist, they are not affiliated with a major assembly of Baptists. Neither are they Assembly of God, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Orthodox Christian, or Unitarian. Nor are they Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or anything else I can think of. The few small start-up schools affiliated with mainstream faiths always seem to take their educational roles very seriously.

Rabbi Bernard Fryshman from the accrediting body that handles rabbinical and Talmudic colleges, who is one of our more thoughtful observers of higher education, once told me that there are some Jewish religious degree-granters not formally approved by any governmental bodies and that he hoped my office would treat them as genuine colleges. We would, because they are genuine colleges offering college-level work taught by qualified faculty. That is precisely what so many of the Protestant ones are not.

The church-basement degree suppliers are always some kind of “modern” Protestant entity. Some of their officials have told me that they don’t want government interfering with their beliefs, that they value their independence of thought, and that they serve mainly their own adherents. The same could be said, to some extent, of all other religious colleges in the United States, including virtually all Catholic and Jewish scholarly religious training colleges, but these get accredited. What’s the difference?

My colleague Renea Eshleman of South Carolina suggests that the main difference has to do with career path and denominational (or religious) oversight and control. She notes that Catholic, Jewish, and other tightly controlled denominations/religions, including some mainstream faiths such as the Methodists and Lutherans, prescribe prerequisites for ministers, including educational requirements. These “oversight bodies” also dictate or oversee in some fashion the placement of ministers within the churches.

She points out that some denominational churches (such as Southern Baptist) and all nondenominational churches are autonomous, that is, they employ ministers on their own, many of them without credentials or with credentials from unaccredited institutions. If ministers without valid academic credentials are more effective evangelists than those with such credentials, why hire bookworms who would be less effective? True enough, but then why require degrees at all?

I have had occasion to look at a variety of unaccredited Protestant degree-granters, and the distinction between those that are truly colleges and those that aren’t is not a creek that can be forded by making minor improvements. It is a chasm between those who understand higher education and those who don’t. Most of these Christian Protestant degree-suppliers are not colleges. They are reinforcement seminars for people to whom knowledge is a foreign land best left unvisited.

In twenty-one states, religious degree-granters are exempt from state oversight. Missouri, where I once worked, has thirty-four accredited and about fifty unaccredited degree-granting institutions controlled by churches. Note that the accredited schools are not public universities or even secularized independent private colleges; they are church-controlled institutions representing fourteen different Christian sects and four independent but expressly Christian entities. In this one state, the people who attend the fifty—fifty—unaccredited religious degree-granters are getting an unknown education, if any at all, leading to credentials that look, on paper, just like degrees issued by Fontbonne University or Missouri Valley College, reputable religious colleges.

Louisiana has fifty-five unaccredited degree-granting religious colleges, Georgia has forty, South Carolina twenty-eight, and California a staggering 250. Many other states have them, too—degree-granters about which little if anything is known, but which keep pumping out degrees. And they are all Protestant, except perhaps for a few New Age crystal-juggler enterprises in California.

Why? What is it about modern Protestantism that associates freedom and independence with appallingly low academic standards and declares them perfectly fine? Why do we see assertions that student work inadequate for high school is suitable for a Master of Divinity? Why does this only happen with Protestant schools?

Catholic colleges don’t have this problem. Is this a consequence of Cardinal Newman’s advice to those administrators? When faced with the question of how such colleges should respond to the oncoming wave of science, he wrote: “[The university] is ancillary, certainly, . . . to the Catholic Church, but in the same way that one of the Queen’s judges is an officer of the Queen’s, and nevertheless determines certain legal proceedings between the Queen and her subjects.” I wonder if the leadership of the Cardinal Newman Society, steam-vent of the Catholic right and Torquemada to insufficiently Catholic faculty, has read this statement.

Is it the Catholic Church’s unique centralization of authority that prevents the creation of Catholic degree mills? I don’t think so. Judaism is not centralized, yet there is no such thing as a Talmudic degree mill in the United States, hawking its scrollwork over the Internet.

The difference is demand within the religious subculture: there is a huge market for meaningless paper religious credentials among the newer Protestant offshoots. That demand does not exist in any other faith that I am aware of. It is curious that Protestantism, broadly construed, was born in dissent from authority and has shown its perfect freedom to speciate as the needs of its people dictate, yet its newest, presumably most modern sects desire these substandard credentials. How strange that such a faith, having failed to generate a genuine epistemological underpinning, relies on pieces of a false cross to assemble, justify, and propagate its own beliefs.

It is true that there are hundreds of accredited colleges in the United States affiliated with Protestant denominations, almost all affiliated with older, established traditional churches such as the Lutheran and Methodist traditions. It is the modern variants, disconnected from these traditions, that want to have their own colleges but do not understand what a college is. They want to have college degrees without college educations.

The fundamental difference between the traditional religious colleges and the new church schools seems to be differing attitudes toward knowledge. Some of the things that the church-basement Protestant schools have in common with one other are an unwillingness to connect to the “outside world,” a stunning indifference to norms of what constitutes college-level work, and an overuse of life experience for credit.

Cardinal Newman 150 years ago recognized that insular absolutism, such as that recently displayed by the leadership of Patrick Henry College in Virginia and shown all too often in recent years by leaders of many faiths, negates the basic nature of a university and does a disservice to its students: “It is not a convent, it is not a seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world. We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is in
evitable, and it is not the way to learn to swim troubled waters, never to have gone into them.”

What can we do to make sure that society understands the difference between degrees issued by legitimate religious colleges and the faux-credentials issued by the new wave of Protestant bottom-feeders? Enlist the leadership of genuine religious colleges to explain to legislatures that college-level work has to mean something if we are going to use degrees as credentials. A college that is antiknowledge is an anticollege.

Alan Contreras

Alan Contreras is administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission. His writing on topics related to higher education appears regularly in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the International Higher Education, and Inside Higher Education. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Commission.

In the eighteen years that I have worked in higher education, including ten years as an academic program evaluator, I have never encountered a Catholic diploma mill. Well, I do know of one literally Byzantine e ntity in Minnesota, but broadly speaking, all bottom-feeder unaccredited colleges that issue substandard religious degrees are Protestant. They are …

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