College students strive for one goal: a degree. Dayspring Bible College and Seminary wants to give them one after they complete its programs. But the suburban Chicago school only issues certificates and diplomas. The Illinois Board of Higher Education forbids Dayspring from offering a “degree” because it doesn’t meet accreditation standards.

Earlier this year, Dayspring and a handful of other Illinois-based Bible colleges filed a federal lawsuit accusing the state board of overstepping the First Amendment and infringing on their rights to free religious exercise and free speech.

The lawsuit argues that the current ban financially hurts unaccredited Bible colleges because it communicates that their education is inferior and thus dissuades prospective students. And if the schools pursued accreditation, which is costly, they would become unaffordable. (According to the lawsuit, Bible colleges generally run 25 to 30 percent of the cost of a liberal arts school.)

Twenty-eight states currently exempt Bible colleges from regulation. One of the most recent states to deregulate was Texas.

In 2007, the state supreme court ruled that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board could not forbid the unaccredited Tyndale Theological Seminary and Bible Institute from calling itself a “seminary” or using words such as degree, bachelor, master, and doctor. Such terms belonged to the church before the government claimed them.

Nearly 30 Bible colleges were established in the decision’s wake. Yet not all similar schools in Texas liked the ruling. B. H. Carroll Theological Institute continued pursuing accreditation in spite of the outcome. Its spokesperson said, “Accountability is a biblical mandate.”

The ruling even led to one Bible college losing its state endorsement. Texas had not permitted Rio Grande Bible College to grant degrees because of operational concerns, such as professors having to raise their own support. But the school gained permission (separately from Tyndale’s victory) when the state agreed to accept Rio Grande’s accreditation from the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

Then, in 2013, a Texas education board decided that solely religious degrees were outside of its jurisdiction, and revoked Rio Grande’s bachelor of biblical studies. Instead, the degree is now overseen by a nonacademic entity, the Texas Workforce Commission, which Rio Grande president Larry Windle believes stigmatizes the school. He says the move gives the perception that the degree is inferior to those overseen by the higher education board. Additionally, he finds it ironic that some religious schools are more hesitant to accept Rio Grande’s credits than secular schools are.

In recent years, due to the rise of distance learning and increased oversight of financial aid, government scrutiny has increased, said ABHE president Ralph Enlow. The ABHE accredits more than 100 Bible colleges.

If Dayspring is allowed to call its diplomas “degrees,” Will Friesen, provost of nearby Judson University, doesn’t think it would undercut the value of his accredited four-year program. But, as a Bible college alumnus himself, he finds unaccredited schools’ claims that they offer equivalent degrees “troubling.”

The questions remain: Do the current restrictions violate schools’ religious freedom? Or do they safeguard the meaning of the word degree?

[Responses below are listed on a spectrum, with those siding with unaccredited schools offering degrees at the top and those who support the government's standards at the bottom.]

Degree is an important word that impacts attracting students, faculty, and donors. It impacts students’ ability to get jobs. Thousands of Illinois teenagers want, but cannot afford, higher education. It is time we save Illinois taxpayers and religious groups the expense of unnecessary regulation and to give teenagers broader choice and more affordable educational opportunities to keep them from leaving the state.”
~John Mauck, attorney, Illinois Bible Colleges Association

“We oppose obtaining state approval to operate and grant degrees. Doing so would interfere with our religious liberty to direct religious education as we see fit, predicated on the Bible. Seeking state approval would also burden us with added costs, make the college less efficient, and limit our ability to develop members of the church.”
~Reginald J. Saffo, president, United Faith Christian Institute and Bible College, Illinois

“I empathize with those who want to insist on a more fully unfettered claim to religious liberty. But there is a reasonable state interest in protecting the meaning and integrity of the word degree in light of the large and growing number of degree and diploma mills—including many religious ones. In Illinois, the state is not prohibiting Bible colleges to operate. It’s simply insisting that if they are going to offer certain postsecondary degrees, they should mean what they mean generally in higher education, with certain minimum credit hours and certain distribution of course subjects.”
~Ralph Enlow, president, Association for Biblical Higher Education

“The problem isn’t that this will cheapen degrees from accredited programs, or give unregulated schools unwarranted advantages for recruiting students. It’s the propensity of religious entities to offer bogus programs in ‘degree mills.’ There is no issue with an unregulated religious school that adopts best practices and assesses them in public fashion. But what about the ones that deceive and disclose nothing? Who will make them accountable for fraud in an unregulated industry?”
~Bruce Corley, former president, B. H. Carroll Theological Institute, Texas

“For Bible colleges to say that they’re doing the same thing with their degrees as liberal arts schools is troubling. We expect that doctors and nurses have had the right exams and that they keep up with their fields. Same with public schoolteachers. Higher education has the same standardization, and to have one portion do something nonstandard and call it a degree is suspicious.”
~Will Friesen, provost, Judson University, Illinois

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