Preemptive Note: As a disclaimer, I should add that I’m not an unbiased observer here. I believe I know a better model to reach students in low and middle income countries in a scalable, financially sustainable way, and that way is New World University, which cooperates with partner organizations to reach students in person rather than solely online. I’m the president of this new institution, and we’re in the midst of a slow rollout. I’ll be making a major announcement about it soon.
My friend Michael Strong asked me what I thought about the University of the People becoming accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, and my response grew a little too long to be a Facebook comment, and I thought it might be of general interest, so I thought I may as well post it here.
To start, and most importantly, I think it’s always good when students have more choices, and I’m hopeful that University of the People will become a good choice for many. It’s clearly a legitimate institution that is dedicated to bringing higher education to those who really need it, and that’s praiseworthy.
However, in the midst of all the accolades I do have a few observations that are a little less bullish. First, UotP’s model of using online learning coupled with volunteer instructors will limit their ability to grow rapidly to meet the needs of the billions-with-a-b students around the world who need better access to quality higher education. Many people have asked questions about their financial viability: they can keep going so long as founder Shai Reshef continues to bankroll them. But is there a plan for the institution to become self-sustaining?
Second, they cleverly market themselves to students and even more so to the media as a “tuition free university”. Technically this is true, although this is a case where the large print giveth, and the fine print taketh away. They don’t charge tuition, but they do charge an admission fee of up to fifty dollars, and each of the 40 courses required to complete one of their degrees is assessed by a proctored examination that costs one hundred dollars to take. That means the “total cost of ownership” of a degree from University of the People is not zero, it’s $4,050.
Now, in a sense that’s a very weak objection. After all, no university will ever really be able to do this for free, and four grand is obviously still an order of magnitude less than most degrees from U.S. based universities. But it’s not necessarily less than attending university costs in countries where UotP seems to be attracting a lot of interest, countries where most people don’t have four large lying around. They say that they’re keen to raise funds to provide scholarships to defray those expenses for as many students as they can, and that’s great, I hope they raise millions, but that alone is not a novelty, and even the wealthiest education philanthropist in the world has said that non-profits cannot meet all the world’s educational needs.
Finally, accreditation by DETC is real, but the U.S. system of accreditation is very complex and warrants explanation. There are two categories of institutional accreditation in the U.S. The first is regional accreditation, which is universally recognized in the U.S. and around the world. The second is national accreditation, which is legitimate and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, but for historical reasons is less well recognized by better regarded universities in the U.S. and is often not accepted by university systems in other countries. Personally, I respect DETC and think that a school they accredit is fine and that objections to them are mostly academic snobbery, but I hope this choice doesn’t limit the options of UotP’s graduates..