A Leveled Playing Field

State of Wisconsin agrees to award financial aid to students at small Christian university, reversing previous decision based on institution's accrediting status.
October 14, 2009

State officials in Wisconsin have decided that a religious accrediting group's stamp of approval is adequate, after all.

The Higher Educational Aids Board, the state agency responsible for administering financial aid programs in Wisconsin, had rejected Northland International University's application to a state program that awards money to students at Wisconsin's independent colleges, citing the fact that the institution -- a former Bible college -- was accredited not by a regional accrediting agency but by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which accredits some Christian universities, colleges and seminaries.

Officials of the financial aid agency said they were merely carrying out an existing state law that a college must be accredited by a "federally accepted accrediting agency" to qualify for the Wisconsin Tuition Grant Program. But they appeared to have added their own twist to the law by interpreting it to mean that they could grant approval only to colleges and universities that were accredited by the local regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The Transnational association and other national accreditors are recognized, like their regional peers, through a U.S. Education Department approval process.

The Wisconsin board's decision raised many of the same issues that have surrounded colleges' policies on transfer of credit, which sometimes restrict recognition of "legitimate" academic credits to those earned at institutions that are accredited by regional rather than national agencies. In addition to religious accreditors like the Transnational association, the ranks of national agencies also include several that focus on for-profit technical and career-oriented colleges.

Members of the Higher Educational Aids Board discussed Northland International's situation at its August meeting, but postponed any reassessment of the policy until they had more information. The board's executive director, Connie Hutchison, said that she had sought guidance from accreditation experts at the U.S. Education Department.

"Since they provide federal aid to students attending the Bible colleges accredited by TRACS, we determined that we should follow suit," Hutchison said in an e-mail message.

Last Friday, at another meeting of the board, Hutchison recommended that the agency align its policy to match the federal government's, and the panel did so -- to the satisfaction of Northland International officials.

The university's president, Matt Olson, said in a statement that he was “thrilled that the current and future students of the university will be able to receive these funds," which will begin as soon as next year and could amount to as much as $250,000 a year. "Our goal is to prepare servant-leaders for Great Commission living, and we want to remove every obstacle that may prevent these students from getting the education necessary to be successful in what God has called them to do.”


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