By Kevin Milan
Published Sunday, May 27, 2012
| From the July 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Firefighters enroll in fire science programs for a variety of reasons. Some use a degree for entry into the fire service. Many embrace an associate’s degree purely to improve their knowledge, skills and abilities. Others seek a bachelor’s degree so they can become eligible for promotion. Still others have their eyes on the future and seek a fire science degree to support a post-line career in or out of the fire service. No matter the type of degree or the reasoning behind it, the challenge of selecting the right fire science program is common to every firefighter seeking a cap and gown.
Which Is Best?
I’m often asked which program or degree is the best one. My typical reply to that question: “Best—for whom?” Like Baskin Robbins, there seems to be “31 flavors” of degree programs out there: online, brick and mortar, night school, those approved by Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE), even mail-order. (Note: I do not advocate mail-order degrees.) Knowing what you expect to gain from the program is the key to selecting the best program for you.
What I Would Look For
If I wanted to earn a fire science degree, I have a set list of my top five expectations and/or considerations for my ideal program. Of course, this isn’t an end-all/be-all list for fire service educational programs. This is simply a roadmap that can help you select the program that best meets your needs. Think of it as investment advice. After all, you’ll spend a great deal of time and money on your education, so you must invest wisely.
My top considerations in selecting a fire science program are, in no particular order:
- School credibility
- Quality of instructors
- Program cost
The credibility of the institution you select is paramount. Just as you wouldn’t enter into a business partnership without doing your homework on your potential partner, any financial challenges, contractual limitations, etc., you wouldn’t select a school without doing similar research. Of course you wouldn’t select a school based on their slick web page or shiny brochure! Peel back the layers to investigate the credibility of the school. Ask for the word on the street, and then follow up with plenty of research.
The Crux of Credibility: Accreditation
The seal of approval, and the baseline of credibility in education, is accreditation.
For a degree to be valid, it must be accredited. This is the bottom line, so don’t consider wasting your time or money on a degree or certificate from a diploma mill. A degree from a non-accredited institution is simply a wall decoration. A degree from an accredited school demonstrates an individual’s ability to plan, meet a commitment and communicate coherently.
The accreditation entity matters too, and not all accreditations are equal. Schools are typically accredited either regionally or nationally. But, like a scoop of rocky road inside a chocolate-dipped cone (going back to my 31 flavors concept), some schools have it all, that is, regional and national accreditation.
Many departments and programs accept either accreditation. The National Fire Academy (NFA), for example, has required regional accreditation for entry into their Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program since its inception; however, in the coming months, the NFA will begin accepting nationally accredited degrees that meet specific requirements yet to be determined.
Until these requirements are defined, I recommend that you consider accrediting agencies recognized by the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Note: The agency listings are not an endorsement of any one institution over another, nor are they an endorsement of any one accrediting association over another. They are merely reference services available to the national firefighting community.
CHEA and ED also recognize a myriad of accrediting associations that are sometimes called “national” accreditation associations. However, keep your eyes out for diploma mills that merely claim and cite accreditation. These accreditations are as worthless as the degree they accredit. The litmus test for accreditation is the eligibility of the institution to obtain federal funding, or student loans. If you’re unsure of your institution’s federal funding status, check to see if it’s included on the list of nationally accrediting agencies by visiting www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg6.html#NationallyRecognized. (Note: To search for a regionally accredited fire science program, visit www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/resources/resources_schools.shtm.)
Important: With higher education comes the possibility of conflicts between fire department policies and collective bargaining agreements. Specifically in the areas of tuition reimbursement for college courses, incentives for earning your degree, and promotions to ranks requiring a degree, policy and contract language often states that only courses and degrees from regionally accredited institutions will be accepted. Spend the time up front to ensure your educational efforts meet these requirements. If you’re unsure, ask questions. A simple e-mail to the human resource director or a supervisor can clear up any confusion and protect your investment of time and money.
The curriculum of the fire science program is the educational content or substance that you’re purchasing. When researching programs, look for one that aligns with the FESHE guidelines established by the NFA. By enrolling in and completing a fire science program that’s aligned with FESHE, you ensure that your education will meet national standards. You should also spend a little time on the USFA website (www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/feshe/feshe_model.shtm). This is where you’ll find descriptions of core courses for associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs.
Quality of Instructors
A fire science program is only as good as those delivering it, so look for a program with practicing professionals who are seated as instructors and who are leaders in their respective fields. Take the time to check the curriculum vitae (CV) of the instructors, and check to see whether their work has been published. Also, look for those who teach at recognized national fire service conferences. Finally, ask for recommendations from their previous students.
Important: If a school is tentative in providing any of this information, be suspicious. Their instructors should be a source of pride for the school. And don’t hesitate to ask further questions: What is the school’s graduation rate? What kind of job placement assistance is provided?
Finally, realize that your affiliation with the school shouldn’t end with a handshake from the dean at graduation. Progressive institutions keep all students abreast of changes in the field of fire science, and should support access to resources and networks for your educational peers. The best institutions offer seminars, webinars and conferences to maintain the currency of graduates. The NFA provides unfettered online access to the Learning Resource Center (LRC), an annual EFO Symposium and a network of graduates available for consultation.
This is a key consideration when choosing between an online or brick-and-mortar school. To make sure you select the right school for your learning needs, consider your learning style and your ability to work independently. Choosing a 100% online program requires a lot of self-discipline. Be honest with yourself, and consider the benefits of attending a live class on a regular basis before dismissing it as an option.
That said, online learning is evolving and becoming much more interactive, so there are some incredible hybrid programs available today. For example, some learning platforms, such as Adobe Connect, allow all students in the class to log in an attend class virtually. With webcams and each student’s ability to upload content and make presentations, it feels a lot like being in a real classroom. The added bonus is the ability to ask questions in real time through chat or video functions. I strongly recommend this format over mundane online discussion posts and/or uploading a paper each week.
My grandfather used to tell me, “Money isn’t everything, but it’s right up there with air.” When selecting a program, be sure to consider your out-of-pocket expenses. Inquire about tuition reimbursement, and look for every scholarship opportunity. Applying for student loans is simple; paying them back is arduous.
Also consider the total cost of the degree. Ask for full disclosure from the college on associated fees—you’ll be surprised at how quickly technology fees, academic excellence fees and even library surcharges add to your bill. Often, employers reimburse only the cost of tuition, leaving you on your own to cover the cost of any other fees.
And although it sounds obvious, don’t forget to consider the cost of books in your calculations. Some schools provide texts or online PDFs. This can result in substantial savings to the student. If you’re responsible for your own books, consider buying used books. These are a fraction of the cost of new books, and as long as you’re careful in selecting vendors, they’re an invaluable option for someone on a budget.
A Tool in Your Toolbox
Your college education is basically a tool in your toolbox, but it’s a valuable one that could pay dividends for the rest of your career. So before embarking on higher education, first and foremost, determine what you intend to do with the degree. Define the requirements of this tool before buying it. If you’re just entering the job, insist on an accredited school that follows the FESHE curriculum. If you’re using the degree for advancement in your department, review the job description and be certain that the degree you’re seeking fits with it.
But don’t just consider the here and now. Look ahead to other programs that you may be interested in later in life. If you intend to apply for the bachelor’s program at your local college after completing your associate’s degree online, make sure the degree and the credits will be honored by the local college. Similarly, if you intend to apply for the EFO Program at the NFA, review their requirements carefully. Check the entrance requirements for the next step before you take your first.
Today, there are incredible programs tailored specifically for the fire service. Traditional academic universities offer unique perspectives not available from inside the field. FESHE guides our development as a profession and is working towards national standards.
Remember: Behave like the picky kid at Baskin Robbins. Be smart and look for the seal of approval in the form of accreditation. Most of all, be true to yourself and scrutinize your options for your education like you would scrutinize potential investment opportunities. After all, it’s for you, and don’t you deserve the best?
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story