Guest Post by Rachel Higgins
The University of the People is an online institution that claims to be “the world's first, tuition free, nonprofit, online university.” Since it's inception, the school has managed to educate thousands of students who would have otherwise never had an opportunity for higher education while turning its idealistic founder Shai Reshef into a star in non-profit and education circles. Yet, despite its early successes, many still question the long term feasibility of such a revolutionary school. In order to take on the educational needs of poverty-stricken potential students around the globe while maintaining solvency, the institution will likely need to restructure and make some difficult choices.
The University of the People aims to offer higher education to poor students around the globe who lack the means to attend university of any sort. After making millions of dollars from several for-profit, online education ventures in the US, Europe and the Middle East, Shai Reshef founded the university in 2009, and today, continues to run it with only two people. It has no campus, no visitors center, and no signage whatsoever. It is simply exists in a downtown high rise in Pasadena, CA. Despite his previous global education ventures, Reshef chose to base The University of the People in the US “because students from all over the world want an American degree. They want to study, and want to find a job, and they want their degree to be recognized.”
Today, the school has enrolled 1,300 students from 129 countries, mainly from Nigeria, Indonesia, Haiti and the US. Upon registration, students must verify that they are at least 18 years old and pay a one-time application fee ranging from $10 to $50, which varies according to the comparative wealth of the student's home nation. Otherwise, there are no tuition or book costs. So far, the school offers two- and four-year degrees in business administration and computer science, but Reshef has been meeting with academics at many top universities, developing plans to expand the course offerings Instructional materials are provided for free online by an open-source consortium, with Yale and Hewlett Packard expected to partner with the university soon as well. “Of course, you see 'free' and right away you're suspicious,” says Villanueva Sanchez, University of the People student from northern Peru. Sanchez contends that after reading the school’s mission statement, though, she was convinced the school is for people like her who lack the money or opportunity to attend college.
“Listen, everyone should be educated,” says Reshef. “I care about the people who don't have the right to an education right now, and they should have the right.” Regardless of the school’s ideals and the lofty goals of its founder, many wonder how a school that essentially requires no tuition from students could possibly remain solvent. “I think the concept of the University of the People is a nice idea,” says Philip Altbach, head of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, but adds, “I think it's a bit half-baked at this point.”
“I have a bunch of concerns that we're all still trying to figure out,” says Dalton Conley, former dean of social sciences at New York University, who is currently on loan to help the school expand course offerings. Indeed, the school remains unaccredited, a significant limitation on the future prospects of its graduates, and while the courses are still ostensibly free, new expenses are already being incorporated. In September, for instance, new students will be required to pay a $100 fee for every final exam. Meanwhile, while more than 30,000 people have applied to the school, so far, only about 1,000 have met the school's admission criteria: attainment of a high school diploma, and English proficiency.
Yet, Reshef insists the university will yet survive, with its mission intact. “We're building a model,” says Reshef, “[all of higher education] can do it for sure. So we're showing that it is possible.” Aiding Reshef's cause is a partnership with New York University announced last year, which may allow University of the People students to enroll at NYU's Abu Dhabi campus and receive financial aid. The ambitious and philanthropic nature of the project have also proved a major asset, one which Reshef may well utilize to ensure the university remains solvent in the coming years, perhaps drawing on the benevolent supporters to handle administrative duties or fundraising if the organization ever outgrows its humble office space. While the school already utilizes almost 3,000 volunteering professors, as well as volunteer librarians, in 2011 Reshef said “We have 2,000 volunteers, we don't know what to do with them.”
However, once students graduate, goodwill will no longer be enough to ensure
their education will be acknowledged in a competitive global marketplace. If the school is to thrive in the long term, accreditation is key. Reshef asserts “when a student from anywhere in the world is taking an exam, we send the exam to a reputable person from his community. This could be a clergy member or a public official. It's a tedious process, but we want to verify that the person taking the exam is the same student.” Despite these measures, Reshef maintains the school continues to work on accreditation.
For many students around the world, it is apparent that The University of the People remains the best hope for a healthy and prosperous future. Dalton Conley claims that Reshef once stated “We're not the future of higher education, we're the last resort.” While this mindset is an noble place for any organization to start, the most trying work may yet be ahead if Reshef and his cohorts are to turn the concept of free (or almost free) higher education into a sustainable reality.
While Reshef may be offering hope to a thousand individuals in poverty throughout the globe with focused efforts toward bringing his school into the mainstream, The University of the People could yet transform education for those in poverty well into the foreseeable future.