The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), an accreditation body for Christian institutions of higher education, works with approximately 100 institutions. Founded in 1979, the organization is a voluntary non-profit self-governing body that promotes the welfare, interests and development of higher education institutions who have a distinctly Christian purpose. The TRACS Annual Meeting provides opportunities for networking and learning about best and emerging practices among the members.

This podcast features the following individuals who attended the recent TRACS Conference:

  • Ann Rill, Chief Academic Officer at Veritas Baptist College.
  • Bryan McCabe, Academic Dean at Bakke Graduate University
  • Steve Hase, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer at Southern Evangelical Seminary

Key Learnings from Dr. Ann Rill

Veritas Baptist College started as a Bible institute in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the institution became a full-fledged college and received accreditation in 2011. In 2004, Veritas started implementing distance education through video-conferencing while also having some physical sites where classes could be held. The institution’s work expanded to the point where 17 churches along the East Coast offered Veritas’ courses on-site.

During that time, institutional leaders realized that additional flexibility was needed in delivering the courses so each course was videotaped and sent out to students. Eventually, Veritas changed its model to utilize Adobe Connect and eventually Zoom. Over time, all of students were drawn to on-line courses through asynchronous lectures so the university ended on-site classes. Veritas now professionally records most faculty lectures.

As Veritas moved into online education, faculty were concerned about how they would mentor students and prepare young people with ministry. Faculty now believe online education actually offers more opportunity to mentor because the lectures are prerecorded, thus freeing up their time throughout the week to meet with students either face-to-face or via online meetings.

Rill said she appreciated the feeling of community available through attending TRACS events and tries to use these meetings to network and develop relationships with other institutions and their leaders. She believes that these relationships have been very beneficial to Veritas over the years.

In discussing the most recent conference, Rill highlighted sessions focused on mentoring, which is a real challenge for online institutions like Veritas. Noting that 51 percent of Veritas’ student body is made up of transfer students, she cited one session that focused specifically on mentoring transfer students. Rill noted that this type of approach is important because only approximately 40 percent of all transfer students attending non-profit schools complete their academic program.

Rill said that Veritas representatives who attended the TRACS conference have started using what they learned to develop new mentoring outreach efforts. For example, Veritas CFO is part of a group that will mentor students on financial planning and how to avoid taking out student loans.

Rill also pointed to the need to remove barriers, such as discounting the quality of academic courses taken at other institutions, which hamper students from transferring. Although most institutions want to maintain a high academic standard (and often think that their own academic standard is the gold standard), the fact is that many students will be transferring throughout their academic careers. This makes sense – Millennials and Gen Z’ers are projected to have an average of nine different careers during their lifetime; thus, it is not surprising that they would follow this pattern of regular change in their academic studies. Wise institutional leaders will find ways to help these students transfer their previously earned credit hours, which increasingly will be important as the population of potential students nationally continues and even accelerates its decline.

Rill did note that Veritas’ transfer policies are slightly different in relation to undergraduate and graduate programs. Veritas is more open to receiving undergraduate credit from schools that may not be accredited but that have appropriately degreed faculty members and are offering a valid program. She pointed out that accreditation is relatively new in Christian colleges and institutional leaders have been slow to embrace accreditation because they want to make sure that the accreditor’s worldview is in line with the Christian institution. Therefore, students who started their degrees many years ago may not have undergraduate degrees or credits from accredited colleges, so Veritas tries to do its best to accommodate these students without losing any integrity.

At the graduate level, Veritas does accept qualified students, even if their degrees do not come from an institution that is accredited. However, as part of their admissions review, Veritas officials may identify academic deficiencies in the student’s background that would affect their graduate studies. The institution may ask the student to take some additional undergraduate courses to close these gaps. Rill also noted that Veritas does hold a high standard when considering requests to transfer graduate courses. In addition, Veritas has a policy that graduate students need to complete at least 25 percent of their program at Veritas to earn their graduate degree.

Key Learnings from Dr. Bryan McCabe

Bakke Graduate University’s main headquarters are in Dallas, but the university’s students live across the word with 30 percent residing in North America. The university offers an Executive MBA program and a Master’s degree in Transformational Leadership as well as doctoral degrees in Transformational Leadership and Ministry.

The university serves business leaders, political leaders, Christian pastors and missionaries. These individuals take classes together, which brings diverse viewpoints to the classroom. In addition, BGU’s faculty are located around the world. Most classes are offered on-line. However, BGU also has an innovative program in which students can attend week-long immersive on-site classes that look at Christian work and issues in a specific city. The institution also has a Board of Regents (which is different that its Board of Trustees) comprised of individuals located across the world that serves as a resource network for coaching and mentoring BGU’s students.

McCabe said he appreciated the opportunity to network with the conference’s diverse participants. His biggest takeaway from the TRACS Conference was the need for each of the university’s initiatives to be tied to a visioning and strategic planning process that is aligned with all of the stakeholders within the university. The TRACS conference showcased the need to continually assess progress while also communicating to and involving individuals.  

The university just went through the 10-year accreditation process with TRACS and received commendations for their work. However, there is room for fine-tuning and McCabe noted that attunement to a shared vision is a big challenge.

Key Learnings from Dr. Steve Hase

Southern Evangelical Seminary, which is 26 years old, offers educational programs through integrating classical philosophy and evangelical theology with apologetics. The Seminary is known for a full integration that helps Christians be prepared for a contemplative faith and have influence in their professional and community spheres.

Hase experienced three takeaways from the TRACS Conference:

  • The conference improved his own mindset through offering the opportunity to meet peers and learn about everyone’s challenges and successes. He realized that he’s not alone when undertaking these efforts.
  • TRACS regularly pulls together numerous subject-area experts on topics, including strategic planning, building institutional leadership, a data-driven approach to admissions, reporting and measuring, and donor-centric fundraising.
  • Fellowship is a critical part of the TRACS Conference because it allows participants to interact with others who are mission-minded. These individuals are always willing to impart their experiences and wisdom.

TRACS leadership coaches individuals to help them become better leaders. In addition, the association creates workshops to help campus leaders do an accreditation self-study and to show ways that the institution can demonstrate it is meeting the accreditation requirements. These resources offer clarity and create templates that help institutions succeed. The conference also offered ideas to help the Board of Trustees understand their roles and be successful.

The seminary is considering beginning a capital campaign, but after attending TRACS, Hase realizes that institutional leaders need to figure out how to cultivate a culture of stewardship as well as sustainable donors. The TRACS conference also made him reevaluate whether the institution is ready for this campaign and whether the need exists to sharpen the strategic plan. He now believes he needs to make sure that the Board and the senior leadership are on the same page before reaching out to raise external capital.

Bullet Points

  • TRACS conferences offer opportunities to network and develop relationships with leaders from other institutions. These events also provide opportunities to learn from others, both informally and formally.
  • TRACS offers support to members who are going through the accreditation process. In addition, the association’s conferences and meetings create a network that helps members remain on the cutting edge of higher education.
  • Mentoring students – especially those who are transferring into the institution — is important, especially since the available student population will decline soon. Look for innovative ways to involve leaders and faculty, such as creating mentoring opportunities around personal finance.
  • Additionally, institutions need to look at removing barriers in relation to transferring. This includes finding appropriate ways to accept course credits.
  • Strategic planning and visioning should be at the heart of the institution’s efforts. This process needs to be continually refined and involve regular participation by the institution’s diverse stakeholders.
  • Institutions can take an out-of-the-box approach through creating a network of key individuals around the world who can mentor students.
  • Think through capital campaigns carefully before starting these efforts. These campaigns need to be tied to the strategic plan and continually involve and update all stakeholders.

Links to Articles, Apps, or websites mentioned during the interview:

Guests Social Media Links:

  • Ann Rill
  • Bryan McCabe
  • Steve Hase