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What is the University of the People?

Photo courtesy of University of the People.

The University of the People – a tuition-free, online university – announced in September there are over 10,000 students enrolled for the first term of the 2018 school year. 

The University of the People offers students a chance to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science, health science or business administration in addition to offering an MBA program and associate degrees. It was founded in 2009 by current President Shai Reshef and received accreditation in 2014. 

Reshef said the university can be tuition-free because it uses free online materials including open-source technology, free educational resources and volunteers. Their educational leadership includes chancellors and former chancellors from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Oxford and New York University.

“There are people all over the world who do not attend college either because it’s too expensive, in some other places because there aren’t enough universities available, or for political or social reasons,” Reshef said. “We believe the internet is the best way to enable these people to get an education.”

Though the university is tuition-free, it's not completely free, Reshef said. Students are asked to pay $100 for each end-of-course assessment. This averages $1,000 per year or $4,000 in total for a bachelor’s degree.

“If they are not able to pay, we have a variety of scholarships that are available,” he said. “It’s our mission that nobody would be behind for financial reasons.”

Reshef said the school is ready to accommodate growing numbers of students because it was designed with these high enrollment numbers in mind. 

“We have the staff necessary,” he said. “We are there and ready to grow because we believe we should serve everyone who deserves our education.”

Reshef founded the university based on the idea that the high cost of higher education has made it inaccessible to many people.

“A lot of students drop out of colleges because they cannot pay,” he said. “A lot of undocumented students are not able to attend higher education and it’s important to show that education can be accessible for them as well.”

Almost half of students enrolled in University of the People have residence in the U.S. Out of those students, 69 percent are immigrants, according to the university's website. 

“Anyone who would like to enroll needs to show us that they have a high school diploma and they are fluent in English,” Reshef said. “Then they are accepted into two courses and they need to pass them before they are admitted as an official student.”

David Dill, a former UNC public policy professor, said the University of the People is significant because it is tuition-free, since many universities offer degrees online. 

“The research indicated that being enrolled in a residential school would probably be much more valuable than being enrolled in an online program, even a high quality one,” Dill said.

Dill said the value of a university's degree depends on who accredits the institution. University of the People is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education.

“The quality of the people and the extent to which you’re tutored and whether or not you can interact with other people can make a big difference,” Dill said. “It’s hard with a free program like this to know the quality.”

He said a program like the University of the People can be helpful to students, especially those from a very low-income background who might not have another path to higher education.

“They may have very bright and motivated people applying to them who didn’t follow a traditional path,” he said. “People might be able to get a University of the People degree and go out and do well, but employers are going to bet on the students from universities like Harvard or UNC.”


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