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Politics of degree accreditation in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi A reader asked me what the fate of future graduates of Zaytuna College, America’s first Islamic university that I wro...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A reader asked me what the fate of future graduates of Zaytuna College, America’s first Islamic university that I wrote about a while ago, would be since the school is not accredited now and is unlikely to be accredited in the next four years. Can graduate of the college find jobs with their unaccredited degrees? Will the degrees be legal? If the answers to these questions are in the negative, my questioner wanted to know, what’s the point of the college?
Zaytuna College logo
Well, accreditation of universities and colleges is a slightly complicated issue here. Different standards and rules apply in different states. For instance, in the U.S. states of Washington (not to be confused with Washington, D.C, the federal capital, which isn’t a state), Oregon, New Jersey, North Dakota, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, Texas, and Indiana, it is illegal to use an unaccredited degree for anything.

 In fact, in the state of Washington the penalty for using an unaccredited degree is five years in prison and a $10,000 (i.e., one million naira) fine! Worried by the proliferation of diploma or degree mills (as unaccredited schools that sell degrees are called here), many states are considering similar harsh laws.

In the state of California, where Zaytuna is located, unaccredited degrees are only invalid, but not illegal. That means you may never use the degree to seek a job, but possessing it doesn't constitute a felony like it does in the state of Washington. However, this law is hardly enforced in California and many people get jobs, especially in the private sector, with unaccredited degrees.

It is noteworthy that in many of these states where harsh laws exist against unaccredited degrees, exceptions are made for unaccredited degrees that are issued by religious institutions (such as theology degrees, etc). However, such degrees cannot be used for public employment; they can only be used for private, religious employment. In that wise, graduates of Zaytuna College are safe. The degrees currently being offered at the college are in Islamic theology and Arabic language, although plans are under way to add secular courses.

The other problem with accreditation is that schools need to exist for some time, graduate batches of students, and generally have a record before applying for accreditation. In other words, schools need guinea pigs for their educational experiments. Accreditation bodies need this record trail to determine whether or not a school is worthy of accreditation. That's why other states are reluctant to be as harsh against unaccredited colleges as the above-mentioned states are. 

In fact, it is entirely possible for a school to be unaccredited but state-approved. That means such schools satisfy the conditions to be allowed to operate in the state and to seek regional and federal accreditation in subsequent years. Zaytuna falls in this category. So the degrees of the students of the college are perfectly legal.

The interesting thing, though, is that most of the present students at Zaytuna College already have degrees and jobs and just want to deepen and systematize their Islamic knowledge. Other than this, I frankly don’t see what use an Islamic theology degree, even if it were accredited, will have in a society like America, which is seeing a growing intolerance toward Islam and Muslims. Certainly, many employers will be leery to hire anybody with an Islamic theology degree.

Zaytuna’s surest path to mainstream acceptance in the American society is to transform itself into a secular college with Islamic roots. It can have course offerings in Islamic studies, theology, the natural and social sciences, humanities, and so on but should avoid being an Islamic seminary. Well the founders of the school say their vision is to make Zaytuna the American Muslim equivalent of such prestigious universities as Georgetown University, Catholic University of America, Loyola University, etc which, though secular, have unabashedly Christian roots.

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