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.
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.