Yellowstone Christian College has earned accreditation from a group representing Bible colleges, leaving the school on Billings' West End poised to get federal funding for some of its students.
The Association of Biblical Higher Education granted the school accreditation in February, four years after it became a candidate with the group. The ABHE, with more than 200 schools and 50,000 students under its umbrella, is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education under its community and social services accreditation wing.
It's a different track than Montana University System schools, which are accredited by a regional agency recognized by the feds as a more sweeping educational accreditor.
But it does open up options for federal student financial aid. The school has submitted paperwork to the feds earlier this month, and hopes that it gets approved sometime in the spring. Students would be eligible for financial funding like Pell Grants, which are awarded to higher education students based on financial need, or to have loan payment deferred if they transfer.
The school has long offered its own scholarship, but "it'll be a definite game changer," said provost John Ramos.
The accreditation is consistent with the school's identity as a "confessional Christian college."
Faculty must agree with and abide by a doctrine of faith. Students are effectively required to be Christians, agree with specific viewpoints, and to be actively involved in a church.
Similarly, Yellowstone Christian College had to sign on to the ABHE's requirements, like educational rigor and a "biblically grounded Christian worldview."
It includes a "Tenets of Faith" document and a position statement on "religious freedom and human sexuality," which recognizes marriage as an "exclusive lifelong union between one man and one woman." The document also rejects the concept of being transgender: "We do not affirm the resolution of tension between one’s biological sex and one’s experience of gender by the adoption of a psychological identity discordant with one’s birth sex."
Yellowstone Christian College's own doctrine includes a similar position on marriage.
The school's board of directors is now examining both two-year and four-year regional accreditation options, Ramos said, which would be comparable to Montana University System schools.
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A key point of that will be maintaining the school's confessional identity, he said.
"If there is something along the line that'll compromise that mission, compromise who we are, we'll see if we re-evaluate that process," Ramos said.
The school offers four-year degrees in Christian leadership, business, psychology and sports management, plus two-year degrees in Christian leadership, business and exercise science. General education, "Foundational Christian Studies," and "Practical Ministry" courses are combined with major-specific classes.
Being nationally accredited lends weight to those degrees, Ramos said, which can cost almost $10,000 per semester in tuition before discounts related to age, residency and athletics.
"It verifies that our education standards, our educational academic rigor, it meets the (U.S.) Department of Education standard," he said. "It validates that the education is just not (only) Bible study."
It also improve options for students who transfer or go on to pursue advanced degrees, as some schools accept credits from ABHE schools.
"Prior to receiving the ABHE accreditation, they would not even look at us," Ramos said.
Other schools require accreditation more in line with comprehensive four-year universities; Montana University System schools are accredited by a regional group under a more expansive federal category.
The college opened in 1974, renting one room at what was then Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University Billings). It eventually moved to its present location, on 12 acres adjacent to Shiloh Road.
In September 2005 a chapel was built to the campus. A library was added in 2009.
Originally called Yellowstone Baptist College, the school changed its name in 2013.
When it received candidate status from the ABHE in 2015, the school only offered Christian leadership degrees. The candidate status allowed it to expand.
The school added men's basketball, its first sport, in 2015, and women's basketball followed in 2016. Ramos said that the school has received inquiries about moving from the National Christian College Athletic Association to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, where schools like Montana Tech compete.
Longtime college president Bruce Cannon stepped down in April, and the school hopes to have a new president in place by spring, Ramos said.
He said that he expected the ABHE accreditation to make the school more appealing to prospective students.
"It presents to the public and prospective students and families that we have been evaluated," he said.