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University of the People Is Accredited, Just Not As You Might Think

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On February 14, 2014 the New York Times ran a story about a very promising initiative called the University of the People. This young online school, founded just four years ago, offers courses to disadvantaged and underserved groups mostly for free (application costs run $0 to $50 and examination costs are $100). The University of the People has 700 students from 142 countries currently taking classes. Some 25 percent are from the United States and 30 percent are from Africa.uop

While there are several popular online courseware platforms currently in existence – think of edX and Coursera – University of the People is different. Classes often consist of 20 to 30 students and run for ten weeks. Quizzes and homework assignments are expected of all students, regardless of the diverse range of countries where they might reside. While a reported 3,000 professors have volunteered, only 100 have actually been used in either courseware development or instruction. Current degree offerings include degrees in computer science and business administration.

The idea behind such an initiative is that there is a way to offer free – or very low-cost – high quality education to students anywhere in the world, all through a central course delivery system. Programs like the University of the People manage to do so through open courseware which often relies heavily on textual content. This is an essential component of any such global program due to the lack of broadband internet access in African countries, a major geographic focus of such educational initiatives.

The controversy surrounding such programs, though, concerns accreditation. Anyone can learn by reading a book, newspaper, or magazine. But can that knowledge be demonstrated at such a level that it will be transferable to legitimate, established institutions of higher education? This is the crux of the issue, one which often leaves aspiring programs like the University of the People out of national and international spotlights, not to mention failing to qualify their students for state licensure, certifications, certain career paths, or continuing with their education at established institutions of higher education.

On February 13, 2014, University of the People administrators announced that they had obtained national accreditation for their degree granting programs. Unfortunately, this “national accreditation” consists of accreditation by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), a legitimate U.S.-based accreditation agency, but not one which carries much weight in the accreditation realm. DETC accreditation ensures that a program has proven to offer courses via distance learning, but it isn’t so much a recognized assurance of quality. The distance learning format could mean online or through traditional paper-based correspondence, and the accreditation is real, it’s just not what you expect when an institution of higher education states that it is accredited. This is a common problem in the prison education realm, as profiled regularly by Prison Education News.

The deans of the University of the People are volunteers from Columbia University and New York University. The program has received support from the OpenCourseWare Consortium, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and even the Clinton Global Initiative. Even Microsoft recently threw support behind this project, offering to pay all expenses for up to 1,000 students from Africa. Yet, even with all of this surprisingly powerful political and financial support, the University of the People has the gall to call DETC accreditation something of significant importance. That’s just unfortunate, and misleading to boot.

When institutions of higher education speak of accreditation, they usually mean regional accreditation. In the United States, there are six regional accreditation bodies, each of which accredits schools within its particular geographic region. Accreditation by one of these six regional accreditation agencies means that the school is a quality institution. On a more practical level, regional accreditation means that credits will most likely transfer to other regionally accredited educational institutions. For all intents and purposes, all community colleges, state universities, and quality private universities are regionally accredited. Since shades of gray are being employed, a list of the six regional accreditation agencies is warranted:

• Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Higher Education
• New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
• North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
• Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
• Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
• Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities

If the good people at New York University and the University of the People want to make a real statement of educational and academic rigor, then they must be honest and forthright about their accreditation status. Misleading students, and evidently even the New York Times, shouldn’t be a part of a public relations strategy in any manifestation. While, yes, obtaining regional accreditation is very expensive and can take upwards of 10 years, it would be better to seek authentic regional accreditation and to say as much rather than to assert that a different type of accreditation means regional accreditation. This just results in into shady business dealings and brings more questions to mind among those who understand the world of academic accreditation.

The only correct answer here is for the University of the People to right this wrong by ensuring that its students understand what its current DETC accreditation means: that the school offers quality courses via distance education, but that the courses will not transfer to most major colleges or universities and that degrees granted will probably not qualify students for state licensure. To fail to do so is to mislead students about their future career paths, even while offering a remarkable service to disadvantaged students in need.

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a young writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, Vice.com, Salon.com, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,TheCommentary.ca, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine, Truth-Out.org, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites: PrisonEducation.com, PrisonLawBlog.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."
  • Wp

    Well this sucks 🙁

    • Kissa Mia

      this article is not true.

      • Glauber Silva

        Have you more links where someone tell about the UoPeople? What about out of USA? Do the credits accept out USA ?

        • SV1508

          Ask on the facebook page: facebook.com/uopeople

          • Glauber Silva

            Thanks!

  • koolwhip

    it sucks indeed

  • Max Simeoni

    their domain is .edu ???

    • Kissa Mia

      yes .edu, and I have checked many posts in different forums about the UOP. There are bunch of saying the degree is accredited and accepted by others and many more arguing that no it’s not. The fact that what the UOP is transferring and teaching is very useful attracts me to study there. Many universities will accept the credits from UOP including those in partnership with the UOP.

  • Thomas

    The commission that has accredited University of the People, Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), as the DETC is now called, is accredited by the U.S. Secretary of Education and by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). What the author of the article fails to clarify is why one set of regional accreditation commissions are more important, as it were, than others. It’s true that many universities will not accept transfer credits for UoPeople, but perhaps the indignation from the author would be better placed on this fact rather than what they claim as “misleading” information from UoPeople. Also, as a student pursuing different distance learning options, some enlightenment into this hierarchy of accrediting agencies would be much appreciated!

  • Vaghawan Ojha

    So that being said, that we can not use what we have learned in UOP to any other university. Like what if I want to peruse further degree in future. I’m very confused here. Can anyone help.

    • Kissa Mia

      Hi, you can use what you learned and transfer your credits. I have asked NY University already. They do accept the credits, they will allow you to continue in higher education.

  • Allison Ciancio

    let me add these links UoPeople has CHEA & DETC accreditation which are accepted and worth taking by US :

    Read how Wikipedia starts a sentence “The United States-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)….”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_recognized_higher_education_accreditation_organizations#United_States

    http://www.chea.org/pdf/CHEA_USDE_AllAccred.pdf

    Students of UoPeople are equally qualified for all advantages ahead of them. So keep studying and show that you are the best ! It is one of the AMAZING things ever could happen with all who wants to get education and successful! Heads up UoPeople students !

    • Maxy Sone

      technically no….DEAC is accredited by CHEA…not UoP directly

      From UoP site:
      “The DEAC was founded in 1926 and is a private, non-profit organization that operates as a national accreditor. The DEAC Accrediting Commission is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as a national institutional accrediting organization.”

  • Lucho

    Thank you for this information. I have long been followed by UoPeople, they spam, hardly demo their education technology, and almost got me into this accreditation scheme. Distance education is lonely, boring and frustrating, and there’s enough free courses instead of having to pay $100 per exam as in UoPeople.

    • misterjag

      Good luck transferring one those free courses.

    • Kissa Mia

      No one of those free courses are accredited and recognized by other universities. UOP never spam or beg you to enroll, unless you put your email in their hand and subscribe :)) if they spam you, it’s your fault to ask them to spam you. They are accredited and their credits are well-recognized by there universities and companies . 🙂 you no need to be offended cause you paid a lot to earn a degree while other people can gain the same degree and education for free :))).

  • Jennifer

    Though regional accreditation is the gold standard in higher ed accreditation, many regionally accredited schools will accept credits from those transferring from schools without regional accreditation but with CHEA-approved accreditation. Having CHEA-approved accreditation is the next best thing, so to say that getting DETC is of “significant importance” seems to be on par. Or am I missing something here?

  • Vince

    If Columbia and New York Universities support the UoP, then they should be the first to allow UoP courses to transfer to their institutions. That way, their prestige would certainly pave the road for UoP students to aspire higher education. I would certainly be willing to invest my time and money on the UoP. I look forward to that moment. Vicente from Argentina.

  • Habib

    I disagree with your article in it’s entirety. What proof do you have that UoPeople are misleading about their DETC accreditation? Or is this your personal bias opinion. The same as I may have towards your article, it’s just an opinion which we will have. The proof is, is that UoPeople are very explicit and forthright with their DETC accreditation and make it very clear with what it means. They also make it very clear that it is up to the other institution if they accept transfer courses from UoPeople and they hold no guarantees.

    The emphasis and success and excitement of the DETC accreditation comes from the history and progress and evolution of UoPeople itself. DETC accreditation is only a milestone and not as an end or trophy to compare with other institutions to say UoPeople is greater. You are missing the entire point. Having DETC accreditation is to say there is now a standard of knowledge expected with each graduate at UoPeople. It doesn’t mean it’s to compare with other institutions but it now demonstrates that students will be equipped with certain knowledge and skills in their selected program. UoPeople will continue to evolve and is the pioneer for having higher education accessible to populations who would not have the great opportunity to receive higher education otherwise.