Complete an Online Ph.D. in Under a Year—Too Good to be True?

In the last few years, the higher ed landscape is seeing a steady rise in the number of institutions offering online degrees. Schools like Western Governors University and Grand Canyon University have stepped in to make degrees affordable and attainable for both lower-income students and students for whom traveling to a traditional classroom is seemingly impossible. 

Since the pandemic began, many traditional universities have even launched their own online or hybrid programs. Schools like St John’s College, which are renowned for their immersive in-person education, have shifted to offering online degree options to make education more attainable and available. These traditional universities may have moved online but, at least in most cases, they sought to retain the rigor and high standards of traditional in-person learning. Having been in online classes at St John’s College and Duke University, I can personally attest that these courses are as academically challenging and, generally, just as rewarding as their in-person alternatives. 

However, not all online programs are built the same. Some schools are offering online degrees for a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the time, seemingly without the rigor and challenge of their four-year counterparts. One such institution is the Queens College of Theology based out of Charlotte, North Carolina.  

This college was launched in 2021 in honor of Mary Lou (1944-2004) who “fostered over 30 kids, and through her ministry, brought forth massive improvements for her congregation located in Virginia.” It is primarily an online institution but has partnered with Central Piedmont Community College to host lectures in-person and plans to open campuses in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cincinnati, Ohio. 

The college promises that “In all its activities, Queens College of Theology strives for excellence in preparing students for their religious vocation, while educating progressive interpretation of the scripture, to accept and appeal to those who the church may have hurt in the past.” In an email, Roy Brown, the dean of students at Queens College of Theology, admitted, “Keep in mind, we are a new institution, and we do not have available data on student success, and no institution should ever guarantee job placement. However, we believe our students can be professors at any theological seminary where their faith-based education, opinions, and teaching talents would be greatly valued.” 

The delivery model for this education is similar to that of Western Governors and Capella University “FlexPath.” Students aren’t held to a tight schedule. There are no class times or meetings, just a portal where students can watch videos, upload papers, and pay their fees. The new university is tuition-free for students, aside from some base operating fees. 

One of the programs the school offers is a Ph.D. in “Psychology – Theology.” According to the website, the program “is designed to build on your previous study and experience in human psychology while integrating theological research,” adding that “Graduates can be qualified to pursue jobs that meaningfully impact individual and societal change through research, writing, project management, or leading programs.” The school claims that students may qualify for the following positions upon graduation:

  • Christian counselor 
  • College professor 
  • Independent consultant 
  • Organizational mentor/consultant 
  • Researcher/writer

For each class, students are assigned a book which they “will be expected to summarize,” and then they have to “complete a reflection assessment to determine course comprehension.” After the coursework is completed, students are assigned a Dissertation supervisor and their “academic research begins.” 

Astonishingly, the school claims that the Ph.D. can be completed in as little as 48 weeks— less than a year.

However, completing graduate-level degrees takes serious time and effort. Earning a graduate degree, especially a Ph.D. in Psychology, denotes a level of competency and preparedness for particular careers. While the school’s mission to prepare students for their religious vocation is certainly commendable, its ability to properly educate students so quickly seems rather dubious. 

And the Ph.D. in Psychology-Theology isn’t the only program the school offers. In just 36 weeks, students can earn a Bachelor of Science in Christian Counseling. In another 36 weeks, they can earn a Masters’s in Biblical Counseling. It takes less than two weeks to earn one graduate school credit and just above 3.3 weeks to earn one undergraduate credit. 

That means that in around 2.5 years, a student could come out of high school and earn a Ph.D. in Psychology-Theology from Queens College of Theology.  

According to its website, Queens College of Theology “will become eligible for accreditation by a Dept. of Education approved agency within two years. We are granted the power to issue degrees by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors according to a religious exemption.” 

In an email correspondence with Brown, he explained that, “We are a theological college, entirely based online. All of our programs of study are for Christian religious vocations only. You won’t find any secular education with us.” 

Brown’s comment on the nature of the program begs the question: what exactly is secular education? Does branding something as religious exempt it from the requirements and expectations placed upon “secular” institutions? 

The UNC Board of Governors’ standards for religiously exempt institutions are somewhat ambiguous. According to the Religious Exemption policy, institutions have to fulfill one of two criteria in order to qualify for religious exemption. In the first option, the policy states that “the subject education constitutes postsecondary degree activity [emphasis added] based upon a program of study… the institutionally planned objective of which is the attainment of a degree in theology, divinity, or religious education.” In this section, the BOG seems to expect religiously exempt institutions to offer college-level work. 

However, the second option is less clear about the level of rigor expected of these institutions. The second option merely requires that “the subject education constitutes a program of study… that is designed by the offering institution primarily for career preparation in a religious vocation.” To be sure, one would expect that preparing students for a career would involve adequately-rigorous coursework. Still, the overall policy should more explicitly require high standards—regardless of whether the program is religiously-oriented or not. 

What benefit does the church receive from having a non-clinical Psychology- Theology Ph.D.? The school itself admits that these “programs of study are not intended to be clinical, they are to be practical programs to give pastors, ministers, and religious counselors the education needed to properly provide religious counseling.” But if your friend or church member was suffering from a serious mental illness or thoughts of self-harm, would you take them to a counselor who earned a Ph.D. online in just 48 weeks, and who has no clinical credentials? Doing so seems reckless. If the Ph.D. in Psychology- Theology is simply intended to enable one to offer “religious counseling,” wouldn’t it be better to earn a purely theological or pastoral credential instead? (The school already offers a separate Doctor of Theology program.)

From an outside perspective, even the religious education at this college seems to fall well outside the realm of what is considered standard. Traditional Master of Divinity (MDiv) degrees take three to four years of full-time, intensive study that usually include several classes in theology, history, Old and New Testament interpretation, biblical languages, pastoral care, and missiology. Following MDiv or comparable degrees, a few highly qualified candidates will go on to pursue doctorates of Theology (ThD) or Doctorate of Ministry (DMin) degrees, both of which take several years to complete. Although, at Queens College of Theology, you could earn both the MDiv and ThD in just 84 weeks. 

In many cases, online education may help provide access to higher education at a more affordable cost and could help solve supply-side problems for industries that are finding themselves short on staff. In this brave new world, it seems that oversight and accreditation procedures could actually be serving a valuable role by ensuring educational quality and consistency within particular degree offerings. This is where the Board of Governors could step in.

The Board of Governors has the unique ability to grant exemptions for religious institutions, which seems to be an important distinction protecting the separation of church and state. That being said, we must still take seriously our commitment to the church and to the societies wherein the church is located. There is certainly room in credentialing to respect “the separation of church and state” but does identifying as a religious institution permit a school the ability to opt-out of quality standards and basic institutional requirements? The answer should be a resounding “no.” 

Furthermore, offering a Ph.D. in Psychology or an MDiv in such a short time could rightfully cause some to lose trust in higher education credentials. Students at other institutions work incredibly hard to earn these degrees and the awarding of a Ph.D. denotes a significant accomplishment in a particular academic field. If the Board of Governors held online religious programs to higher standards it could raise the quality of these programs and provide a sense of accountability. 

According to a June 2021 list, there are over 120 institutions operating under the religious exemption. Some of these are large online universities like Fuller Theological Seminary and other well-established institutions based in North Carolina, like Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. These institutions are highly respected and have a proven track record of success in online education. Clearly,  then, a religious exemption does not necessarily imply a lack of quality or reflect badly on an institution’s ability to prepare students for vocations. 

However, not all institutions are built the same. Not every school advertising advanced degree programs is actually offering a substantive and meaningful education. With recent increases in online, hybrid, and service-oriented education, governing bodies like the Board of Governors, as well as accrediting agencies, are needed to ensure quality and consistency, perhaps now more than ever. That is, at least, if we want degree titles like MDiv and Ph.D. to mean something. 

Chris West is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School. Previously, Chris spent 2018-2019 as a Martin Center policy fellow.