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Earning a Master's Degree in Religion Via Distance Education

written by: •edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 5/31/2010

Distance education gives students the flexibility to earn their degrees online, at their own pace. Here's what you need to know before enrolling in an online masters degree program in religion to ensure that you get the most from your academic studies.

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    Important Considerations When Selecting a Distance Education Program

    Earning your masters degree in religion isn't as simple as finding a reputable program and signing up for classes. Prospective students must reflect on their religious beliefs and career goals to ensure that they choose a program that will prepare them well for the future. This is particularly important for those who are planning to become ordained ministers, because they will need to fulfill the requirements of their denomination prior to joining the ministry.

    Before you begin researching schools, speak to ministers and advisors in your church to determine the path that is best suited to your career goals. Depending on your motivation behind earning a masters degree in religion, there will likely be major considerations that will determine where you should earn your degree. In some religious traditions, for example, students must complete their education in an institution that reflects the beliefs of the denomination. You may also be required to attend an accredited institution in order to be eligible for ordination.

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    The Importance of Accreditation

    The Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is responsible for overseeing schools in the United States that offer religious education. And while accreditation is optional, those schools that undergo the rigorous application process and receive accreditation must maintain the high educational standards of the ATS in order to keep their designation by the accrediting body.

    While the ATS does approve of some distance education programs, they do require an on-site residency for all Masters of Arts in Theology and Masters of Divinity degrees. This residency requirement means that students can’t complete accredited theology degree programs entirely online. According to the ATS, the limits set for online masters degree credits include 30 credits for a Masters of Arts degree and 60 credits for a Masters of Divinity Degree. Students must complete the remaining coursework at the campus where he is earning the degree.

    In addition to ensuring the adequacy of the education, accreditation makes it possible for schools to participate in federal student aid programs. Schools that don't meet the standards of the United States Department of Education (USDOE) are unable to take advantage of the federal loans and grants that make graduate education affordable for many students. Some unaccredited schools do offer private scholarships, but generally speaking, students are fully responsible for the cost of tuition.

    Some schools, such as Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, are accredited by the Northwest Association on Colleges and Universities, but not by the Association of Theological Studies. This university does offer a distance education masters degree in religion that can be completed entirely online. While the institution itself is reputable, it is important to ensure that a program such as this will satisfy the educational requirements for your career goal.

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    Researching Online Masters Degree Programs in Religion

    The Association of Theological Schools' website offers information on all of the accredited religious programs in the United States that offer online coursework. In addition to viewing a brief summary of each program, you will find contact information and links to the institutions' websites where you can research the schools further, view course descriptions and perhaps even apply online.

    If you are looking into accredited programs, it is important to keep in mind where the schools are located and whether you'll be able to either relocate or commute to the school easily to fulfill the on-campus courses and residency requirements.

    In your research, you will likely come across many independent, unaccredited institutions that offer theology degrees that can be completed entirely online. If you are considering attending a school that is not accredited, it is important to research the school carefully and determine if your masters degree will be well regarded upon graduation. If you plan to transfer the credits to finish your education at another institution, you'll also need to learn about the transferability of the course credits that you earn there.