Offering Free College to Some of the World’s Poorest Students

The University of the People has a tiny budget but huge goals.

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National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
March 31, 2014, 11:11 a.m.

Lots of uni­versity pres­id­ents talk about serving low-in­come stu­dents as one part of their edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion. Is­raeli en­tre­pren­eur Shai Reshef foun­ded a col­lege spe­cific­ally to serve the world’s poorest cit­izens. Uni­versity of the People is a tu­ition-free, on­line non­profit staffed mostly by vo­lun­teers. The in­sti­tu­tion’s few costs are covered by phil­an­throp­ic dona­tions and the small fees stu­dents pay to ap­ply for ad­mis­sion and to take ex­ams. So far, the Cali­for­nia-based col­lege of­fers just four de­grees: two- and four-year un­der­gradu­ate de­grees in com­puter sci­ence and busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. Since it opened in 2009, Uni­versity of the People has ac­cep­ted 1,700 stu­dents from 143 coun­tries.

A few weeks ago, Uni­versity of the People was ac­cred­ited by a na­tion­al ac­cred­it­or, the Dis­tance Edu­ca­tion and Train­ing Coun­cil. Sev­er­al stu­dents have com­pleted as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees and are on their way to earn a bach­el­or’s; on April 2, sev­en stu­dents will be­come the school’s first gradu­ates.

Na­tion­al Journ­al spoke re­cently with Reshef to learn how Uni­versity of the People man­ages to provide a nearly free edu­ca­tion to any­one with a high school dip­loma, Eng­lish pro­fi­ciency, and an In­ter­net con­nec­tion. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

How is Uni­versity of the People dif­fer­ent from a massive open on­line course, such as those offered by Cours­era and Uda­city?

We are a full uni­versity. You need to fol­low the cur­riculum; you need to have a min­im­um grade-point av­er­age. It’s a full de­gree pro­gram, and you have some elect­ives, but it’s not that you can choose any course. You need to fol­low our cur­riculum. So this is the first dif­fer­ence.

The second dif­fer­ence, which I think might be even more im­port­ant, is the kind of stu­dents we have. Eighty per­cent of stu­dents who en­roll in MOOCs have either a bach­el­or, mas­ter, or Ph.D. This is not our pop­u­la­tion. Our stu­dents are sur­viv­ors of the gen­o­cide in Rwanda, earth­quake in Haiti, tsunami in In­done­sia. We are the op­por­tun­ity for those who have no oth­er op­por­tun­ity.

And as such comes a third dif­fer­ence. In Cours­era — in the MOOCs in gen­er­al — they have about 5 per­cent com­ple­tion of each course. In our case, people come from much weak­er aca­dem­ic back­grounds. However, we put them in small classes of 20 to 30 — not thou­sands — and in each classroom we have an in­struct­or. We ac­tu­ally fol­low them, give them the per­son­al­ized at­ten­tion they need. The res­ults are that re­cently 75 per­cent of those who star­ted moved with us to the second year. I’m not talk­ing 5 per­cent after one course — I’m talk­ing 75 per­cent after 10 courses. So it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of of­fer­ing, dif­fer­ent kind of pop­u­la­tion, and dif­fer­ent kind of res­ults.

Don’t mis­un­der­stand me. I think what they’re do­ing is ex­tremely im­port­ant, and I’m very happy that they do it. They should con­tin­ue do­ing it. But it’s dif­fer­ent.

You’re also at­tract­ing a grow­ing num­ber of U.S. stu­dents. Can you tell me more about them?

About 25 per­cent of our stu­dents are from the U.S., al­though many of them were not born in the U.S. They might be im­mig­rants, they might be refugees, they might be maybe un­doc­u­mented — we don’t know. We just do know that many of them are not born in the U.S. 

How do Uni­versity of the People’s on­line classrooms work?

In or­der to be ac­cep­ted, stu­dents need to have a high school dip­loma, which we should be able to veri­fy is from a re­cog­nized school. Second, they must have pro­fi­cient Eng­lish. And, ob­vi­ously, they need an In­ter­net con­nec­tion. Then they’ll be ac­cep­ted, and they need to fol­low the cur­riculum. A course is nine weeks long. We have five terms a year, and they ex­pect to study two courses a term in or­der to gradu­ate in four years. Every course is di­vided in­to weeks.

It is very im­port­ant for us to try to have a mix of stu­dents in each vir­tu­al classroom from around the world. The dis­cus­sion ques­tion is the core of our stud­ies. After stu­dents come to the classroom, they read the lec­ture notes and go in­to the read­ing as­sign­ment; they start dis­cuss­ing the top­ic of the week. So let’s say that our first stu­dent — just to give an ex­ample — is Chinese, be­cause the morn­ing starts first in China. Thursday morn­ing, he goes in­to the classroom and does everything he needs, and he de­cides to post his own con­tri­bu­tion to the class dis­cus­sion. The second stu­dent — let’s say she’s In­done­sian. And she does the same, and she sees what the Chinese stu­dent writes, and she de­cides to com­ment on it. Let’s say that the third one is from New York, and he does the same, and com­ments, and the Chinese stu­dent is very likely to go back to the vir­tu­al classroom and see what oth­er people say about his point.

So all week long, the dis­cus­sion de­vel­ops between the stu­dents, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of an in­struct­or. By the end of the week, they take a quiz to veri­fy that they mastered the ma­ter­i­al. They hand in their home­work, which is as­sessed ran­domly by their peers, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the in­struct­or, who has the right to over­ride the grade. And they get the grade for the week, and move to the next week. By the end of the course, after nine weeks, they take the fi­nal ex­am, which is proctored, and they get the grade and move to the next course.

We don’t use au­dio. We don’t use video. You don’t need broad­band in or­der to study with us. Everything is text-based, to en­sure that any stu­dent from any coun­try with any In­ter­net con­nec­tion can study with us. We’re just start­ing to in­tro­duce video slowly, but it’s elect­ive; it’s nev­er man­dat­ory. 

When you say ex­ams are proctored — are they proctored us­ing an on­line ser­vice, or is there an on-the-ground com­pon­ent to that?

On the ground, in 143 coun­tries. In some places, we have fa­cil­it­ies. But in most cases, we send the ex­ams to one of our proc­tors. Stu­dents have to come to the proc­tor, identi­fy them­selves, and take the ex­ams in front of the proc­tors.

So for that piece, stu­dents might have to travel to take the ex­am? They can’t just do that from their com­puter?

Well, yes, even though we try to find proc­tors nearby where they live. 

Are there any oth­er de­grees or fields of study that you’re think­ing about in­tro­du­cing?

Yes. Right now, we have only busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion and com­puter sci­ence. We de­cided to start with these [be­cause] they are most in-de­mand world­wide and are there­fore most likely to help our stu­dents find a job. But oth­er pro­fes­sions are in great de­mand in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries — and even the U.S. — as well, like health ser­vices. So we are now in the pro­cess of think­ing about ad­di­tion­al pro­grams to of­fer.

Uni­versity of the People re­cently got its first ac­cred­it­a­tion re­cog­ni­tion. What was that pro­cess like?

We worked on it over three years. It was on our mind from the day we built the uni­versity. It was clear to us all along, and def­in­itely now, that it made us a bet­ter-qual­ity uni­versity. We are very happy that we did it. Not only that — stu­dents re­quire it. You know, we have over 1.2 mil­lion fans on Face­book. We’re ac­tu­ally the second-largest uni­versity on Face­book after Har­vard. And be­fore we were ac­cred­ited, for five years, every single day there was a dis­cus­sion about our ac­cred­it­a­tion. Will you be ac­cred­ited? Are you try­ing to be ac­cred­ited? With whom? Why? How will you do it? When?

For leg­al reas­ons, we were not al­lowed to be part of these dis­cus­sions, which really up­set us. But you real­ize how im­port­ant this is for stu­dents, be­cause in many cases, es­pe­cially in for­eign coun­tries, stu­dents are afraid that you’re a dip­loma mill if you are not ac­cred­ited. It’s im­port­ant for them to get a job; it is im­port­ant if they want to ap­ply for mas­ter-level pro­grams. 

Are you try­ing to get re­gion­al or pro­gram-spe­cif­ic ac­cred­it­a­tion?

It’s a good ques­tion. Right now we’re very happy with our ac­cred­it­a­tion. It’s re­cog­nized by the De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion. And our second goal is to be­come fin­an­cially sus­tain­able. In or­der to be there, we need to have 5,000 stu­dents — which we ex­pect to have in 2016 — and we need to raise $5 mil­lion. That’s our next main goal. 

What is the busi­ness mod­el needed to run an in­sti­tu­tion like this? 

First of all, the uni­versity is based on vo­lun­teers. We have over 3,000 vo­lun­teer­ing pro­fess­ors who came on board to help us. Our pres­id­ent coun­cil is chaired by John Sex­ton from NYU and in­cludes Colin Lu­cas, the [former] vice chan­cel­lor of Ox­ford; Ju­dith Sha­piro from Barn­ard; Nick Dirks from Berke­ley. Our prov­ost is from Columbia; our deans are from NYU; and our top aca­dem­ic lead­er­ship are from Yale, NYU, Michigan, Stan­ford, Ox­ford, etc.

We build a struc­ture where most of the jobs are be­ing done by vo­lun­teers. But there’s backup in the form of com­pensated per­son­nel. So if our prov­ost is a vo­lun­teer, our vice prov­ost is be­ing com­pensated. We have about 14 people on our payroll; all the rest are vo­lun­teers. It’s not only our aca­dem­ics: Our CFO is vo­lun­teer; our vice pres­id­ent for strategy and plan­ning is vo­lun­teer. 

We ask our stu­dents to cov­er the cost of their ex­ams, $100 per ex­am. If they have the money, great. If they don’t have the money, we work very hard that nobody will be left be­hind for fin­an­cial reas­ons. So we’re try­ing to make sure that we have enough schol­ar­ships. We have one amaz­ing pro­gram with Mi­crosoft that funds 1,000 stu­dents in Africa. 

Even­tu­ally, that will make us sus­tain­able. Right now, however, we need about $5 mil­lion to get to that point. Last year, we ran on a budget of about $1 mil­lion a year. We are very for­tu­nate to be sup­por­ted by the Gates Found­a­tion, Hew­lett Found­a­tion, Carne­gie Cor­por­a­tion, Kaufmann Found­a­tion, and oth­ers. But in the long run, we are go­ing to be sus­tain­able.

Through those small fees that stu­dents have to pay?

Yes, ex­actly. It’s be­cause of three ele­ments. One, as I men­tioned, is the vo­lun­teers. Second, we use open-source tech­no­logy, so we don’t need to pay for the tech­no­logy, and open edu­ca­tion­al re­sources, so we don’t need to pay for IP [in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty]. All of our ma­ter­i­al comes free.

We’re build­ing a mod­el be­cause we want to show that there is an­oth­er way to de­liv­er high­er edu­ca­tion. It shouldn’t cost as much as it costs. Even more im­port­ant, we’re build­ing a mod­el for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries’ gov­ern­ments. Be­cause when you think about it, right now they take the few mil­lions that they have, and they try to build, what, Har­vard, Stan­ford, Ox­ford. A few years go by, and it’s not Ox­ford, not Har­vard, be­cause you don’t build these in­sti­tu­tions in a few years or with a few mil­lion. But by then, the money’s gone.

We’re say­ing: use our mod­el. You can edu­cate every single per­son in your coun­try at a min­im­um cost. It’s not go­ing to be Har­vard, but we can show you how to have a qual­ity edu­ca­tion for every­one. It would be a great leap for any coun­try if all the pop­u­la­tion had a qual­ity aca­dem­ic edu­ca­tion. 

We talk a lot here in the U.S. about the chal­lenges of man­aging di­verse stu­dent bod­ies. Is that something that you think about — how to make classes rel­ev­ant to stu­dents from all over the world, how to en­sure that cur­riculum ap­plies to jobs in their com­munit­ies?

You know, UN­ESCO stated that in 2025, 100 mil­lion stu­dents will be de­prived from high­er edu­ca­tion just be­cause there wer­en’t enough seats for them. So we’re talk­ing about a huge pop­u­la­tion. One hun­dred mil­lion stu­dents — that’s people who gradu­ate high school, people who are qual­i­fied and want it. We are try­ing to build a way for them to study.

Every time stu­dents take a nine-week class, they meet 20 to 30 stu­dents from 20 to 30 dif­fer­ent coun­tries. We be­lieve that we de­vel­op a pos­it­ive shift in at­ti­tude, which is a great as­set of our pro­gram bey­ond edu­ca­tion. Just pic­ture what hap­pens when an In­di­an, each time he takes the class meets a dif­fer­ent Pakistani, and a Palestini­an, each time he takes a class meets a dif­fer­ent Is­raeli. We open their mind to new cul­tures, es­pe­cially to those who they con­sider to be their en­emies, and show them that that ac­tu­ally they are not their en­emies, but are usu­ally the closest to them in terms of cul­ture. Be­cause an In­di­an and a Pakistani, in terms of cul­ture, are much closer than to Chinese or to Amer­ic­ans, right? I keep say­ing that they come to us in or­der to find a job, but we have an­oth­er mis­sion, which is to make peace in the world a bit closer. At the same time, we ask them not to in­volve polit­ics in the class. 

It’s one of the main reas­ons we have so many vo­lun­teer pro­fess­ors. I mean, you can’t find this kind of di­versity. And the stor­ies we hear from our stu­dents are amaz­ing stor­ies — the hard­ships they’ve sur­vived and the amaz­ing lives they’ve gone through. 

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