by Michael J. Ward
One of the most prestigious academic accomplishments for a chief fire officer is to attend the three-week “Senior Executives in State and Local Government” program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The $11,450 on-campus program is one of 34 Executive Education lifelong learning programs offered at Harvard University. Eight fire service members are awarded an annual scholarship through the “Harvard Fire Executive Fellowship Program,” sponsored through a partnership of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), International Fire Service Training Association/Fire Protection Publications (IFSTA/FPP), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).
This outstanding program carries no academic credit. The Kennedy School will be “… happy to supply an official letter verifying your completion of the Executive Education program that you attended.”
I discovered this when trying to apply this credential to an undergraduate transcript. On the other hand, the university had no problem allowing four semesters of lower-division transfer credit for an Emergency Medical Technician card taught by a firefighter with a high school diploma.
Welcome to the world of academic accreditation. It rivals the fire service in turf battles and arbitrary rules.
TYPES OF ACADEMIC ACCREDITATION
There are three types of academic accreditation:
1) Programs that meet a specific profession or vocation. For paramedic programs, it is the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), administered through the Committee on Accreditation of Educational Programs for the Emergency Medical Services Professions (CoAEMSP).
2) Educational and training organizations that meet federal requirements for tuition reimbursement. This covers truck driver schools and computer training institutions as well as colleges and universities.
3) Educational institutions that meet voluntary accrediting requirements in order to issue degrees and academic transcripts acceptable to other educational institutions.
VOLUNTARY ACADEMIC ACCREDITATION
Accreditation in higher education is defined as a collegial process based on self- and peer assessment for public accountability and improvement of academic quality. Peers assess the quality of an institution or academic program and assist the faculty and staff in making improvements.
Voluntary accreditation has been in place for more than a hundred years. It was linked with federal tuition benefits in the 1952 Korean War GI Bill after issues arose with “diploma mills” after enactment of the original GI Bill in 1944.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) was established in 1996 as a national advocate and an institutional voice for self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation. CHEA is an association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities and recognizes 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.
Accreditation through a regional organization is how most universities and colleges participate in the process. Accreditation through a regional organization means that the degrees awarded and courses completed are recognized for transfer or credit.
As of January 2012 there were six regional accrediting organizations:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools The Higher Learning Commission
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities.
CHEA maintains an on-line database with accreditation information on 8,200 degree-granting and nondegree-granting institutions. It is accessible at: http://www.chea.org/search/default.asp
For an academic institution to issue credit that will be accepted by other schools, it needs to have accreditation from one of the six regional accreditation organizations.
TRENDS IN REGIONAL ACCREDITATION IMPROVEMENT
Although they are voluntary and collegial activities, there has been during the past 12 years pressure for the following:
- Require properly credentialed instructors for community and technical colleges. In addition to appropriate technical background and demonstrated teaching ability, the instructor must possess a bachelor’s degree. These courses are classified as “lower division” undergraduate classes.
- Faculty teaching upper division courses as part of a bachelor degree program must have a master’s degree. Faculty with a “terminal” degree (Ph.D., Ed.D. or equivalent) can teach master’s level courses.
- Provide for each course learning objectives linked to academic goals using appropriate action verbs from Bloom‘s Taxonomy.
Pressure from the U. S. Department of Education in 2006, exerted through the “National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity,” increased the level of detail in two areas. More detailed feedback after an accreditation evaluation and increased measurement of student academic achievement.
CRITICISM OF EXISTING ACCREDITATION PROCEDURE
Although the federal effort to replace the existing regional system with a national program ended, concerns remain.
The Center for College and Affordability issued an October 2010 report: “The Inmates Running the Asylum? An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation.”
The accreditation system “is mired in secrecy, delivers imprecise and largely unhelpful information, is clouded by possible currents of self-interest, restricts entrepreneurial initiative, is often costly to administer … and is not sufficiently outcomes based,” the report says.
In place of a system that relies on volunteer peer reviewers and reveals little about its results, a new process should focus on quality assurance by fully disclosing concrete measures like costs, degree-completion rates, and student scores on standardized examinations in individual disciplines, the report recommends.
In addition, institutions should receive numerous indications of their quality from accreditors, including scores evaluating individual schools or programs within an institution.
Although the CHEA minimized the report, the current round of accreditation activities includes considerable preparation in measurements of student achievement.
With this background, the issue of nationally accredited emergency service degree programs has become a hot topic. Fire Engineering Editor in Chief Bobby Halton covered this in the March 2012, Editor’s Opinion, “Firefighting 2.0.”
Some exclusively online programs have accreditation through the Distance Education and Training Council Accrediting Commission (DETC). DETC is one of two “National Career-Related Accrediting Organizations” recognized by CHEA.
Recognition by CHEA does not translate to academic acceptance. Bear‘s Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, describes the situation:
“… while most schools with regional accreditation will recognize credits and degrees issued by other schools with regional accreditation, less than half will recognize a student’s achievements from a DETC-accredited school, even though both accreditors meet CHEA standards, …”
For example, firefighters with a bachelor’s degree from a DETC-only accredited program applying to graduate school in the Washington, D.C.-area learned that both private and state universities will not recognize their undergraduate degree.
There are two on-line only universities with regional academic accreditation and emergency service degrees:
1. Cappella University started as The Graduate School of America in 1993. The Michigan-based school achieved regional accreditation in 1997. During its start-up, it solicited students who were participants in the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program, offering to provide transfer academic credit for the EFO courses.
2. American Public University System started as American Military University in 1991. APUS has regional and DETC accreditation. North Central continued accreditation of the West Virginia school on June 2011. Even with regional accreditation, APUS provides this guidance to students:
“APUS cannot guarantee that its credit will be accepted as transfer credit into another university. Accreditation does not provide automatic acceptance by an institution of credit earned at another institution, as acceptance of credit is always the prerogative of the receiving institution.”
“… THE PEROGATIVE OF THE RECEIVING INSTITUTION“
Firefighters present a challenge to academic counselors. They tend to have more scattered academic experiences than other adult learners, and from more sources.
My advising experience is split between a state community college and a private university. It was common to process transcripts from four to six institutions spread over a decade or more of military, vocational, and academic adventures. The record was 14 sources for one student.
The private university required six semester hours of English composition. Most community college programs have three semester hours of English composition and three semester hours of technical or business writing. The admissions counselor insisted that every student complete six hours of English composition. It was non-negotiable.
This was a stumbling block for many emergency service students scrambling to complete a second English comp class locally while they were taking online classes for their bachelor’s degree. When Mrs. K retired, her replacement allowed technical or business writing to substitute for the second three semester hours of English composition.
ACADEMIC CREDIT FOR VOCATIONAL TRAINING
The American Council on Education (ACE) is a major coordinating body for higher education institutions; provides leadership and a unifying voice on higher education issues; and seeks to influence public policy through advocacy, research, and program initiatives.
The College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) initiative provides course equivalency information to facilitate credit-award decisions. This is accomplished through an accreditation process similar to the activities by a regional academic accrediting organization.
ACE provides a credit recommendation, both in the subject matter area and number of semester hours. For example, the notoriously difficult National Fire Academy on-campus course, “Chemistry of Hazardous Materials” (R234/R239), receives the following ACE credit recommendation:
“In the lower division baccalaureate/associate or upper division baccalaureate degree category, 4 semester hours in fire science, fire technology, chemistry, general science, or physical science (12/88) (2/94) (8/98) (8/02).”
It may be the only ACE-evaluated, fire-based course with a Chemistry recommendation. I was able to use this course to satisfy the community college science requirement for a half-dozen students.
You can access the ACE National Guide at: http://www2.acenet.edu/credit/?fuseaction=browse.main
VOCATIONAL OR ACADEMIC?
My early experience as a part-time fire science faculty included filling in as the program director. A spouse of a career firefighter wrote to the governor asking why a firefighter with a state Hazardous Materials Technician credential was required to take FIR 111 “Hazardous Materials I.”
The content of FIR 111 was almost identical to the hazmat tech program. At that time, there was no way to grant credit for the state training credential. It was difficult to respond to the letter, since I agreed with the letter writer. My division chair, Doctor B., provided the response double-speak.
It took decades, but Virginia was the first state to combine the community college fire science program and the state fire training program to create a standardized, statewide rookie-to-captain education program.
Completing a Fire Officer I class meets both the NFPA Pro-Board requirements as well as generates four semester hours of academic credit. If you took the class at a regional weekend fire school, it carries an ACE credit recommendation. If you took it at a community college, it meets the state fire training requirements for NFPA Pro-Board credential.
This cross-walk took tremendous effort by dozens of academics, state regulators, and emergency service workers. From the academic side, we had more difficulty standardizing the general education courses across the state.
Going back to our student with the Harvard Fire Executive Fellowship and EMT-Basic credentials: The university allowed me to assign four semester hours of lower-division transfer credit because we ran an on-campus EMT basic course. Possession of a current state or National Registry credential was evidence that the student met the academic goals and objectives of EHS 040 and 041.
On the other hand, students transferring from the university to a nearby state technical college were surprised that the four credits they earned taking EHS 040 and 041 at the university would not be accepted by the college.
MAXIMIZE THE VALUE OF YOUR EFFORT
A DETC-only accredited online university has been successful in getting hundreds of fire departments to accept their coursework to meet promotional requirements. For-profit educational institutions are superior in recruiting and getting adults over their resistance to restart their educational effort.
I appreciate that a DETC-only program offered by a for-profit university may be the most accessible program that meets your department’s career development requirements. It is heartbreaking when I have to tell a brother or sister firefighter that the thousands of hours spent getting a DETC-only degree cannot be accepted by my regionally accredited university.
Anderson, Lorin W.; Krathwohl, David R.; Airasian, Peter W.; and Cruikshank, Kathleen A. (2000) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Old Tappan, NJ: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
Bear, Mariah P. with Nixon, Thomas (2006) Bear‘s Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning. 16th edition. Berkley; 10 Speed Press.
Bloom, Benjamin (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.
Council for Higher Education Accreditation. “Recognized Accrediting Organizations (as of January 2012)”
Gillen, Andrew; Bennett, Daniel L.; and Vedder, Richard (2010 October) “The Inmates Running the Asylum? An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation.” Washington DC: Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
Kelderman, Eric (2010 October 20) Center Renews Call for Overhaul of Nation’s Accreditation System. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Kelderman, Eric (2010 September 28) Accreditation Council Sets Stricter Standards for Recognizing Accreditors. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Marzano, Robert J. and Kendall, John S. (editors) (2006) The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE/Corwin Press.
Secolsky, Charles and Denison, D. Brian (editors) (2012) Handbook on Measurement, Assessment, and Evaluation in Higher Education. New York: Routledge.
Mike Ward is an assistant professor of emergency medicine at The George Washington University. A retired Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue captain II/medic, Ward spent the past 12 years as a full-time academic, including four years as the head of the Fire Science Program at Northern Virginia Community College. He is a textbook author, a presenter, and an ACE credit evaluator. Ward is “Fossilmedic” at the Firegeezer.com blog.