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Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 51–60 

General Education in Accredited Bible Colleges (USA): Recent Findings

Norman Rempel

Relatively little research has been conducted on Bible college education, despite the fact that nearly 30,000 students attend such institutions each year. The curriculum of the Bible college is divided into three major components: biblical/theological, professional, and general education. Of the three, general education has received the least attention. Until this present study, only one researcher, Timothy Warner (1967), examined this part of the curriculum in depth.


The Bible school movement began in the late 1880’s with relatively little concern for the goals of general education. The primary mission of these institutions was to meet the needs of laymen and women desiring to serve the church. Training schools eventually evolved into colleges, and the addition of general education became a curricular necessity. “General education” refers broadly to courses such as history, literature, psychology and natural science. Early programs were usually minimal. Courses were chosen for their obvious contribution to ministry effectiveness. The desire for accreditation was perhaps the single most important motivation {52} for the full development of general education programs. The Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges (AABC), established in 1947, continues to set the standard for curricular shape and quality, including general education.

Bible colleges are working at enabling their graduates to be “truly educated people.”

Until Warner’s 1967 study of Bible college general education, no comprehensive review had been undertaken. Warner asked three questions:

  1. How do Bible college educators define general education?
  2. What is the nature of general education in Bible colleges?
  3. What attitudes are expressed by Bible college deans toward general education?

Warner found that deans of Bible colleges understood general education variously, and he viewed this as a weakness needing attention. General education programs were described as relatively weak, consisting largely of introductory courses in the various disciplines. There was little evidence of effort at innovation and experimentation. Most programs included little student choice; the majority of programs were virtually entirely prescribed. Most programs concentrated their courses in the first two years of study. Attitudes toward general education by Bible college teachers were not uniformly positive.

My study was intended as a follow-up and extension of Warner’s study. I posed three major questions:

  • How have Bible college educators characterized the issues, concerns, and trends relating to general education in US accredited Bible colleges since Warner’s 1967 study, and how do these characterizations compare with those found in mainstream general education literature?
  • How do Bible college educators currently (1991) understand the meaning, objectives, and nature of general education? What are their attitudes toward general education? How do these findings compare with those described in Warner’s 1967 study?
  • What changes in general education are anticipated during the next five years by academic deans of Bible college?


The AABC describes general education primarily in curricular terms, although in some materials the contributions of the extra-curriculum towards the goals of general education are also emphasized. Bible college educators have defined general education variously as “that common core designed to provide breadth of perspective,” “that amount of knowledge of the self, society and the world a person must have to be educated,” and “that which contributes to the development of Christian personality.” {53} General education in the Bible college is based upon the integrating factor of Christian theism.

The objectives for the general education component were for the student to acquire 1) a knowledge of the basic content of the liberal arts and sciences; 2) breadth of perspective; 3) skills needed for quality involvement in society; 4) skills in worldview development; 5) the attributes of the “cultured” or “educated” person; and 6) skills essential for effective Christian ministry.

The AABC guidelines for the content of general education changed somewhat during these years (1969-91), though the main categories remained consistent. Courses in written and oral communication, literature, fine arts, philosophy, languages, history, mathematics, physical education, the social and the natural sciences are expected to be included. Surveys of actual Bible college offerings showed that most institutions followed the guidelines rather closely.

Because no consistent method of computing actual general education requirements was used, those who researched the question of mean general education unit requirements reported considerably different numbers (49.7, 43, 42.7, 30). Overall, the number of required units in general education increased during the period.

Several forces affected Bible college general education. Little research has been conducted on that subject, but proposals in the literature include the following.

1) Dual accreditation. By 1991, 26 of the 75 US Bible colleges accredited with AABC had also obtained regional accreditation; seven were candidates. Though the role of AABC is appreciated and helpful, many colleges view the attainment of regional accreditation as important for the recognition and status it is alleged to bring. Some respondents, however, are concerned about the effect such a trend may have on the nature of general education programs. These fear that the expansion of general education will come at the expense of biblical/theological and professional studies. One study reported greater required general education units in dually-accredited schools, but no difference could be found on measures considered critical by most Bible college educators: biblical philosophy of general education, student involvement in ministry, requirement of Bible majors for all students, and preparation for some form of ministry, whether lay or professional.

2) Expansion of the Bible college mission. During the 1980’s, the AABC Newsletter carried considerable discussion about whether a Bible college could legitimately expand its mission to explicitly include majors other than those leading to full-time professional ministry. Led by its Executive Director, Randall Bell, the AABC membership voted to modify {54} the mission statement to allow colleges to offer programs to prepare students for various forms of employment. In part, this was a recognition of the fact that a number of member institutions were already offering such programs. Some indicated concern that such program additions would lead to imbalance in the curriculum, again at the expense of biblical and professional courses.

Bible college educators, while promoting the appropriateness and importance of general education in the overall curricular program, admit to a number of concerns. 1) There is within the Bible college movement a lingering tendency toward anti-intellectualism, a suspicion of what is often considered “secular” learning. 2) Despite its promise, in many general education programs there is a lack of quality integration of “faith and learning.” 3) The need for faculty in general education to have expertise both in theology and one or more disciplines makes the securing of quality general education faculty especially challenging. 4) The number of Bible college students taking their general education courses elsewhere makes quality worldview development particularly difficult.


Understandings of the meaning of general education vary in US higher education; Bible college educators reflect similar differences of understanding. Interestingly, while Bible college educators now emphasize more than ever the concept of general education as serving to produce the “educated person,” general education (USA) has moved to emphasize its more utilitarian purposes.

Answers to the research questions noted earlier were sought from the college catalog descriptions of general education programs and from the academic deans of Bible colleges (USA) through the use of a questionnaire. A total of 75 catalogs were scrutinized, and 67 questionnaires were returned.

No consensus as to the meaning of general education could be found in the catalog survey, though several themes emerged: 1) General education is described as the breadth component of the curriculum; 2) The study of general education is justified, appropriate; 3) General education is stressed for its ministry-relatedness; and 4) General education is designed to “support” professional preparation.

Answers to the questionnaire revealed that: 1) Bible college educators are nearly split on the question of whether general education and liberal arts may be viewed as synonymous; 2) Seven out of ten disagreed with the statement “General education is virtually synonymous with liberal education”; 3) A significant number of Bible college deans (42%) view general {55} education as that portion of the curriculum which contains all courses that are not biblical/theological or professional; 4) Nearly half of all Bible colleges make curricular distinctions according to the three-fold categorization suggested by AABC: biblical/theological, professional, general studies; 5) Of various possible purposes for general education, classical sentiment was at the top: “To enable our graduates to be truly educated people.”

Most frequently listed objectives found in the catalog survey include “to learn how to communicate effectively,” “to develop skill in worldview development,” “to acquire critical thinking skills,” and “to gain broad knowledge of the disciplines.”

Several findings provide an interesting profile of general education programs in Bible colleges.

Over half of the colleges (53%) identified their chief academic officer as the person having oversight and responsibility for general education programs. Others indicated that this responsibility fell to two or more divisional chairs or to a committee.

General education requirements ranged from 32 to 60 units; the mean was 44, i.e., 34% of the units necessary to obtain the baccalaureate degree. English, speech, psychology, physical education, literature, and Western history courses were the most frequently required general education courses.

Thirty percent of all Bible colleges indicated that they offered at least one integrative/interdisciplinary course; only 4 of 67 colleges identified their general education programs as largely interdisciplinary.

Most Bible college general education programs are highly prescriptive, though considerably more student choice is allowed in 1991 than was the case in 1967.

Over half of the Bible colleges prefer to spread their general education courses over the full four years of a student’s education; around a fourth choose to concentrate nearly all courses in the first two years.

Fifty-six Bible colleges have at least one foundational (often remedial) course in reading, writing, and study skills; only 19 have such in mathematics.

With the exception of hermeneutics, the frequency with which Bible college “distinctive” courses are offered has declined since Warner’s study in 1967. “Bible college distinctives” courses include Christian Education, Christian/Spiritual Life, Church/Denominational History, Evangelism, and Missions. Only the history course has most often been lodged in the general education division, though at least some of these courses are frequently required as part of a foundational core in the Bible college curriculum. {56}

The attitudes expressed toward general education parallel the findings of Warner. My study showed that the attitudes of Bible college deans and faculty toward general education is generally strongly affirmative. The anticipated trends in Bible college general education are several. Most deans believe that change in the next five years (1991-96) will come in the following areas. The percentages indicate the number of deans expecting increases.

  • The total number of required general education units (21%)
  • The total number of general education units in a required “core” (17%)
  • The total number of general education units devoted to the development of fundamental skills (32%)
  • The number of required interdisciplinary courses/approaches within the general education curriculum (26%)
  • The number of required general education units will increase relative to the number of required professional studies units (10%)
  • The number of required general education units will increase relative to the number of required biblical/theological units (12%)
  • The proportion of required junior/senior general education courses to required freshman/sophomore general education courses (14%)

Increases in the following were expected by the overwhelming number of Bible college deans. Not one expected these items to decrease.

  • Efforts to assess student general education outcomes (90%)
  • Emphasis on global and multicultural awareness in general education courses (76%)

The number of general education units required for graduation is virtually the same for Bible colleges as it is in mainstream higher education (USA). Disciplinary requirements are not significantly different, although student choice is usually considerably smaller in the Bible college. Integrative and interdisciplinary approaches are applauded throughout higher education, though to date it appears that the rhetoric has outpaced efforts at significant implementation in both arenas. Highly prescriptive “core” programs occur with much greater frequency in Bible colleges than is the case nationally. Bible college academic support courses in reading and writing skills are offered at about the national rate; fewer courses are offered in remedial mathematics. {57}


General education seems to have gained general acceptance as an important, necessary part of the Bible college curriculum. The ministry-relatedness of the Bible college mission naturally presupposes that the biblical/theological and professional aspects of the curriculum will always take center stage, and that emphasis is reflected repeatedly in Bible college literature. Considerably less time and attention is given to general education in Bible college literature than one finds in liberal arts colleges. Nevertheless, most Bible college catalogs reflect significant understanding of the appropriate role of general education, and this is an improvement over Warner’s findings. While it is true that some confusion about the meaning of general education and related concepts still exists, the same is true for higher education (USA) generally. At least if one is to believe the rhetoric of the catalogs, most institutions understand that general education serves a crucial role in the total education of its students. To offer inadequate general education programs would seriously impair the ability of the Bible college to accomplish its mission.

Warner’s challenge for Bible college educators to begin to view general education in less utilitarian terms has been generally heeded. That the highest-rated purpose of general education is now “to enable our graduates to become truly educated people” is significant. The second-rated purposes are “to broaden the intellectual horizons of our students” and “to equip our graduates with knowledge needed to witness and minister effectively in today’s world.” General education must serve to develop persons as persons (being) or it will not be wholly successful in developing ministry skills (doing). General studies cannot be justified solely for their contribution to ministry, important though that is. Exploration of God’s world of people and things is essential for the Christian in the modern world.

The rhetoric of quality integrative/interdisciplinary approaches to date exceeds reality in Bible college general education. While significant improvement seems to have occurred in some colleges since Warner’s challenge, too few programs evidence serious efforts along these lines.

Perhaps many colleges would contend that their success at integrative and interdisciplinary exploration cannot be measured by the number of courses specifically designed for these purposes. Some might argue that relegating these concerns to specific course offerings misses the mark. Rather, these concerns must be expressed throughout the entire curriculum. Analogous to the recent “writing across the curriculum,” the real goal should be “integrating across the curriculum.” {58}

It is certainly possible that the “across the curriculum” approach is being employed in Bible colleges. If so, where it occurs it needs to be encouraged and fostered. This researcher could find little evidence in the catalog survey to suggest this, and the responses to the questionnaire indicate that only about a fourth of the colleges anticipate increases in attention to this crucial need.

In many respects, Bible college general education is similar to that found in mainstream higher education (USA). From one perspective, this is clearly positive. Graduates of all institutions of higher learning leave to enter the same world, a world where all the skills and understandings gained in general education programs will be put to good use. Bible college graduates should receive no less a “general” education than their counterparts in other institutions.

Potentially, Bible colleges should be in a position to offer superior, “distinctive” general education programs. Whereas much of higher education suffers from a lack of curricular coherency, Bible colleges project their general education programs within the integrative centeredness of Christian theism. Coherency and cohesiveness should be the obvious consequence of the adoption of such an integrative framework. Furthermore, the quality of general education instruction should be superior in Bible colleges. Whereas general education courses are often taught by graduate assistants or junior members of the faculty in many programs at large institutions, Bible college general education is typically taught by members of the faculty brought to the institution specifically for the their contributions in those fields. Faculties are usually small enough for interdisciplinary and integrative discussions to take place naturally in the context of everyday relationships. 1


I list several observations intended to improve the Bible college curriculum.

  1. Bible colleges must engage in significant study of the meaning and place of general education in their programs. Lockerbie’s recent work on general studies should provide some stimulus in this direction. AABC’s Randall Bell hopes that the recent changes in the policy on general studies will give colleges clearer direction when conducting program evaluation and revision.
  2. Bible colleges need assistance in the development of both the integrative and interdisciplinary dimensions of their general education curriculum. Introductions to the disciplines are essential, but hardly adequate if general education is to fulfill its purposes. Every Bible college {59} program must be held to a high standard in this regard if graduates are to achieve the lofty objectives set forth in nearly all catalog descriptions.
  3. It would bode well if a study were conducted on the effects of the expanded Bible college mission, reflected in the 1991 AABC Manual. General education programs will likely expand in those institutions which choose to add majors and minors beyond those related to traditional professional ministry categories. Will the general education divisions begin to overshadow or even dominate the other two curricular divisions? Will the expansion move the overall college atmosphere away from its traditional ministry orientation?
  4. Those interested in the future of the Bible college must be concerned about the overall quality of its general education programs. This study only indirectly dealt with matters of quality, but correspondence with the Executive Director of AABC, Randall Bell, left no doubt that resources are needed to deal with this issue. Among other comments, Bell indicated that general education in Bible colleges is often weak and superficial. He has observed Bible colleges which are anti-general education, but try to repackage professional and biblical/theological courses to qualify as general education. These observations, from an individual possessing firsthand experience with member colleges and clearly in full sympathy with the movement, are particularly troubling. The fact that the quality of general education in many other kinds of institutions is also seriously deficient is of no comfort. If general education is as important as Bible college literature would suggest, no excuses should prevent serious movement toward reform.

    Unfortunately, general education reform is not likely to have immediate payoff where it tends to count most, namely, in student recruitment. Students rarely attend a college because of the high quality of its general education program, nor do they stay away because it is found to be weak. Bible colleges will have to pay attention to general education because it is right to do so. The dividends will be seen in the quality of its graduates as they move out to serve in a fast-changing, troubled world.

  5. Bible colleges need to pay particular attention to the special needs of their general education faculty. The establishment of programs which assist and encourage faculty to systematically reevaluate their courses in the light of overall general education objectives must be made a priority. Monies and release time must be made available for attendance and involvement in disciplinary conferences and workshops. In many cases, general education faculty are alone in teaching their discipline, and conferences provide a means to relate directly with others who share like interests. {60}
  6. Those with oversight and responsibility could learn from each other in regional conferences devoted to the purpose of improving Bible college general education programs. Keynote speakers could deal with the topics of general education meaning, purposes, and objectives. Workshops could concentrate on proven implementation models. Perhaps AABC could provide the catalyst for such meetings.


  1. Williams, in a recent study of common curricular elements in the Bible college curriculum, concluded similarly. “It appears that the Bible college personnel talk a lot about integration, but no one is doing anything which will lead the curriculum in this direction” (140).
  2. For excellent suggestions along these lines see Lavonne Larson’s AABC Newsletter article, “General Education in the Small Bible College: Smallness Can be a Big Advantage.”
Dr. Norman Rempel, formerly instructor of Bible and Philosophy at Grade College of the Bible, is Registrar at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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