University of the People Spurs an “Education Revolution”

University of the People Spurs an “Education Revolution”
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on August 31, 2021

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For Trần Hữu Đại Nhật — call him "Sunny" — life was rather easy. His father, owner of an electrical construction company, and his mother, an accountant, provided a comfortable home in Da Nang, Vietnam.

In 2009, Sunny left town to attend college in Ho Chi Minh City. Two years later, while cruising along toward his bachelor's degree in business with a 3.98 GPA, Sunny received some difficult news: his father's business had gone bankrupt. With finances suddenly tight, Sunny had to drop out of school.

For the next five years, Sunny put in 80-hour weeks working three jobs to earn money for his family, never abandoning his dream of returning to college. But he had to stay employed, and cost remained an issue.

"Incurring any more student debt was a no-no for me," Sunny said in an email to BestColleges.

His options were limited.

"In Vietnam, there were no local universities that fit with my working schedule," he said. "It was hard for a mature learner to get back to school."

That's when Sunny discovered the University of the People.

What Is the University of the People?

Calling itself the "Education Revolution," the University of the People (UoPeople) promises a new model for higher education. It's the first American nonprofit, online-only, accredited university dedicated to educating students worldwide. And it's tuition-free.

Its founder and president, Shai Reshef, says he created the university to help high school graduates "overcome the financial, geographic, political, and personal constraints keeping them from university studies." His goal is to promote international peace and global economic development.

"If you educate one, you can change a life," he told BestColleges. "If you educate many, you can change the world."

Before starting UoPeople in 2009, Reshef spent 20 years in the for-profit education sector.

“If you educate one, you can change a life. If you educate many, you can change the world.”
— Shai Reshef, Founder and President of University of the People

"I witnessed firsthand the transformative power of online higher education," he said, "but I knew that for many deserving people around the world it was still far too costly."

Today, some 75,000 UoPeople students in more than 200 countries are pursuing degrees and certificates in education, business, computer science, and health sciences. That total includes 15,000 in the U.S., the largest contingent of any country. All are remote. The university operates out of a small office in Pasadena, California, and has no physical campus.

That helps keep costs to a minimum. So does not paying faculty. Actually, the professors who teach at UoPeople receive a modest honorarium — a couple hundred dollars — for each course. The teaching opportunity attracts newly minted Ph.D.s looking to burnish their resumes, but the faculty includes experienced academics from across the U.S. who believe in the university's mission.

"The day after I announced the founding of the university in 2009, The New York Times ran a story about my vision for the University of the People," Reshef said. "More than 800 faculty members and academic administrators from throughout the United States emailed me offering to volunteer."

Advertised as Tuition-Free

These cost-trimming measures enable UoPeople to offer courses tuition-free. Yet that doesn't mean there are no costs involved. Students pay a $60 application fee and are charged an "assessment fee" for each course they take — $120 for each undergraduate course and $240 for graduate courses.

So while the university doesn't charge tuition up front, it employs a "pay as you go" model for students wishing to remain enrolled.

"Before applying, I asked current students how free it is," Doreen Baum, a current student from Malawi now living in North Carolina, said via video chat. She joined the school's Facebook group after reading that gymnastics star Simone Biles was a student there. (Biles took courses but didn't graduate.)

Add up the fee requirements, and an associate degree at UoPeople costs $2,460, a bachelor's degree $4,860, a master's in education $3,180, and an MBA $2,940.

"They claim to be tuition-free, which they are, but maybe it should be made more clear," Baum said.

What may seem a semantic exercise does pose some problems for the university.

"Some students have questions about our tuition-free model," Dan Kalmanson, the university's vice president for public affairs, said in a phone interview. "But without charging these modest fees, we couldn't operate. The fees help run the university and maintain the high quality of our academic programs."

Add up the fee requirements, and an associate degree at UoPeople costs $2,460, a bachelor's degree $4,860, a master's in education $3,180, and an MBA $2,940. The university offers students scholarships funded by donors — some covering the full four years of a baccalaureate program. And all learning materials and textbooks are open resources provided free to students.

Gaining admission to a degree program requires passing several "foundation" courses prescribed for each discipline. While anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent can take courses, students intent on earning a degree will have to demonstrate an appropriate level of academic ability and language proficiency.

The university offers five nine-week terms per year, and students can enroll year round.

Serving the Underserved

At its core, the university embraces inclusivity and opportunity, much like other online mega-universities, such as Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, and Purdue University Global. What separates UoPeople is its ultra-low cost, its international reach, and its commitment to truly marginalized groups.

Reshef noted the university's acceptance of refugees, the homeless, undocumented students, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, who don't qualify for financial aid. Its student population includes more than 6,000 refugees, mostly Syrian, a number exceeding the total refugee enrollment of all other U.S. universities combined, Reshef noted.

UoPeople also recently launched a first-of-its-kind bachelor's degree program in business entirely in Arabic. The school's Arabic-language associate degree program in business enrolls 5,000 students and has opened educational doors to refugees and Arab women. Reshef claims more than 125,000 Arab students have demonstrated interest in UoPeople but face language barriers.

The new BA program already has 3,500 students, and the university is offering 1,000 full four-year scholarships funded by donor contributions.

Is University of the People Legit?

Whenever a new player arrives on the higher education scene, especially one threatening to upend the apple cart, questions of legitimacy arise. After all, can something advertised as "free" really be that good?

Although it's perhaps too early to draw definitive conclusions about quality, there are some telltale signs that the university is indeed legitimate.

One is the company it keeps. The school boasts academic partnerships with Harvard Business School, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, New York University, McGill University in Canada, and the University of California, Berkeley, among others. It has corporate partnerships with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Hewlett Packard. Foundation funders include the Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Another quality indicator is its faculty and staff. It draws professors from some top-ranked institutions. Baum, from Malawi, said she's learned from faculty at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The university claims that 92% of its graduates are employed and 97% say they'd recommend the institution to others.

UoPeople's President's Council, an advisory group, features former presidents and chancellors at places like the London School of Economics, Berkeley, Vassar College, Columbia University, and McGill. The group is chaired by John Sexton, president emeritus at NYU, who suggests the university's various partnerships signal academic quality.

"University of the People's collaborations with these institutions provide our students an opportunity to continue their education at some of the leading universities in the world," he said in an email. "In return, we provide these prestigious universities with a diverse pool of students who are strong academically and highly motivated to succeed."

Placement stats and student satisfaction also bode well. The university claims that 92% of its graduates are employed and 97% say they'd recommend the institution to others. Alumni work at Amazon, Apple, Dell, IBM, the United Nations, and the World Bank, among other organizations.

Some go on to graduate school at top universities. Baum hopes to pursue a master's degree in occupational therapy at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when she graduates and meanwhile is busy recommending UoPeople to fellow Malawians.

Then there's the matter of accreditation. The university earned national accreditation through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission and is a candidate for regional accreditation — the true gold seal of approval — through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Projecting Even More Enrollment Growth

In a time when college enrollments are shrinking and some universities are struggling to fill their classrooms, virtual or otherwise, UoPeople is growing by leaps and bounds. It has doubled its enrollment every year for the past five years, according to Reshef, and grew 107% during the COVID-19 pandemic. They expect enrollment to top 100,000 this fall.

And they're not done. Reshef said the university plans to grow 50% per year for the next five years, though he's even a bit surprised by its success.

Reshef said the university plans to grow 50% per year for the next five years…

"Before founding the university, I knew there was a tremendous demand for affordable and accessible higher education," Reshef said. "However, I never thought UoPeople would grow as fast as it has."

As for Sunny, he's now at University College Cork in Ireland pursuing a master's degree in information systems for business performance. The first Asian graduate of UoPeople, Sunny helps students in Vietnam discover their own path to the university and beyond.

"My biggest takeaway from years of hardship and my UoPeople journey is that everyone has the potential to take their lives to the next level," he said, "and learning is the key to living a good life."

Feature Image: pablohart / E+ / Getty Images

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