Moving America Forward

Can Higher Education Be Free?

April 10, 2014
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Can Higher Education Be Free?
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This virtual school provides a college classes to some of the poorest students in the world.

What are international would-be college students to do if they can’t afford the rising costs of a college education? Fortunately, for those that want to learn, a new university has just been accredited.

Fittingly called The University of the People, this four-year college is tuition-free and staffed mostly by volunteers from prestigious schools that charge a bit more, including Yale, NYU, and Stanford.

Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef opened the California-based college in 2009. With hopes to expand the curriculum, currently this college offers two- and four-year degrees in computer science and business administration. Students hail from 143 countries, and this month, seven students will become the first University of the People graduates.

Though perhaps you haven’t heard of it, tons of people have. Reshef told The National Journal that the University of the People has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, more than any other U.S. university except Harvard.

To join the college, students need to have a high school diploma, be proficient in English, and have an Internet connection. Even the Internet connectivity requirement is flexible — all lessons and conversations are posted in text form, so students without broadband don’t miss out on audio or video learning. Classes are nine weeks long and involve intensive virtual discussions, daily homework, weekly quizzes graded by international peers, and final exams overseen by a local proctor.

Earlier this year, the University of the People became an accredited university, recognized by the Department of Education. Reshef hopes that the accreditation will lead to more students, and ideally, more funding from philanthropists. By 2016, he hopes to have 5,000 students and raise $5 million.

“We’re building a model because we want to show that there is another way to deliver higher education,” Reshef told The National Journal. “It shouldn’t cost as much as it costs.” In addition to a volunteer base, the school uses open source technology and open education materials to keep costs at a minimum.

Students at the University of the People have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with hundreds of other students from around the globe. This cost-free, virtual education model is a promising way to get diplomas into the hands of some of the poorest students in the world.

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