3 Key Factors for Firefighters to Consider When Selecting a Bachelor’s Degree

When I started my career as an Air Force firefighter, I didn’t know a whole lot about fire science degrees–the difference between regional and national accreditation, for example, or the National Fire Academy’s influence on curriculum development, or how getting moved from base to base might impact my progress toward a bachelor’s degree.

One thing I did know: I wanted the best education I could get. As I gained more experience, it became clear that of all the choices we make regarding our careers, pursuing a college degree–and choosing where we’ll do so–is one of the most important. The degree and the institution will follow you for the rest of your career. A bachelor’s degree will also increase your chances for promotion to captain and chief.

With this in mind, it’s important to know what to look for in a bachelor’s degree program. When selecting your program, consider three key factors: accreditation, FESHE recognition and online options.

Accreditation

Colleges and universities in the United States can be regionally or nationally accredited. On the surface, regional accreditation may sound like a lower level of accreditation, but it is anything but.

An easy way to think about the distinction: Regionally accredited institutions tend to be academically oriented and not-for-profit; nationally accredited institutions tend to offer more “trade” or vocational programs, and are often for-profit. Let’s take a closer look at both of these accreditations.

Regional accreditation

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 85% of all colleges and universities in the United States are regionally accredited. Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Southern Illinois University are all regionally accredited. Many online colleges are regionally accredited as well.

Regional accreditation is often regarded as the gold standard of college accreditation. Credits and degrees are widely accepted and easy to transfer between regionally accredited colleges and universities. If your bachelor’s degree is from a regionally accredited institution, you will be able to enroll in graduate programs offered by any regionally accredited university. Regionally accredited coursework is also usually eligible under tuition reimbursement plans.

Some possible drawbacks: Due to their high standards, regionally accredited universities may be slightly more expensive, require more liberal arts coursework and enforce more competitive admission standards.

National accreditation

Nationally accredited colleges comprise approximately 15% of the colleges in the United States. They can be less expensive, offer more practical types of degree plans and employ more relaxed admission standards than regionally accredited schools. However, college credits and degrees awarded by nationally accredited schools are not as widely accepted for transfer to regionally accredited colleges or universities and are sometimes excluded from corporate tuition plans. Nationally accredited coursework and degrees may not be widely accepted for professions that require licensing after degree attainment and may limit promotion opportunities.

Choosing accreditation

If there is any chance that you’ll want to transfer credits, or pursue a degree beyond the bachelor’s degree, regional accreditation is almost always the way to go. Choosing a regionally accredited program will ensure that your credits transfer should you want or need to switch schools mid-degree, and should you choose to pursue an advanced degree, your regionally accredited bachelor’s degree will be recognized by the school you apply to. There’s little chance to earn a master’s degree from a regionally accredited university without earning the bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university to begin with.

That said, there are some excellent nationally accredited programs that may be better suited to you depending on your career and educational goals, the educational opportunities in your area and the time and budget you have available.

The bottom line: Your education will be part of you for the rest of your life. Demand a high-quality education that not only helps you in the near future, but supports your long-term goals as well.

FESHE Recognition

To promote higher education and enhance the recognition of the fire and emergency service as a profession, the National Fire Academy’s Fire, Emergency and Safety Higher Education (FESHE) committee has drafted curriculum outlines for fire science courses. Colleges and universities that design their fire science programs around FESHE standards can send their syllabi to FESHE and if approved, will earn “FESHE recognition.”

FESHE-recognized programs give dual credit for the completion of “core courses” in a degree program. For example, if you complete a FESHE-recognized course, you will earn college credit for that course and also receive a certificate from the National Fire Academy for completing the course. In most FESHE-recognized programs, this applies for 6—10 core and non-core classes in the degree program.

FESHE recognition is coveted and rare. Currently, fewer than 30 colleges and universities are FESHE-recognized. Clearly, if you have the option to select a program that has earned FESHE recognition, it’s a good idea to do so. However, because the FESHE curriculum is still fairly new and many excellent programs haven’t yet achieved recognition, choosing a FESHE-recognized program may not be an option. In that case, you can still compare the FESHE curriculum against the schools you’re considering, and select one that comes as close as possible. To learn more about the FESHE curriculum, visit www.usfa.fema.gov.

Online Options

Another key consideration when selecting a college or university: the online options available to you. On the surface, online courses are tailor-made for firefighters. Rotating schedules can make it difficult to be in class the same night each week, and downtime in the station can be a great time to catch up on coursework. And if there’s a chance that you’ll be moving to another area of the state or country, you can continue your online education without interruption. As a former military man, I would have greatly appreciated the ability to complete a degree program regardless of location. After all, once you start a degree, you want to finish and not have to re-start somewhere else.

However, online programs aren’t for everyone. Some firefighters definitely learn better in a classroom environment, and some subjects lend themselves to face-to-face learning more than others. You may find it best to choose a program that combines online and classroom learning, or you may determine that your learning style is better attuned to an all-classroom program. Only you can make the choice.

If you decide online learning is for you, access the rankings for the best online programs in U.S. News and World Report.

Why Not the Best?

A bachelor’s degree provides opportunities for promotion and increased income for the rest of your life. The college or university you choose matters, so shoot for the best. Consider how your program is accredited, whether it follows the FESHE curriculum and whether it provides the online options you’re looking for. If you take these factors into consideration and make a careful, deliberate decision that meets your needs, you’ll be on the path to achieving a degree that you can draw on the rest of your career.

You want the best on the job. Don’t settle for less with your education.

Resources

Bachelor of science in fire science. (n.d.) Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://worldwide.erau.edu/degrees-programs/programs/bachelors/fire-science/index.html.

Phillips V. (2013). Regionally accredited online colleges vs. nationally accredited. Get Educated. Retrieved May 14, 2014 from www.geteducated.com/regional-vs-national-accreditation-which-is-better-for-online-colleges.

U.S. Fire Administration. (2014). FESHE-recognized fire science degree programs. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/resources/schools.

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