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

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

Computer users are pictured in an internet cafe in Istanbul on September 3, 2009 where governmental censorship has banned websites including the video sharing site YouTube. Prohibited since 2007 YouTube remains in the top five most visited internet sites in Turkey. AFP PHOTO / UGUR CAN (Photo credit should read UGUR CAN/AFP/Getty Images) (National Journal)

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.