Shai Reshef, founder of the University of the People: Changing face of college education

From the Internet to rising tuition rates, college today is much different than it used to be. Photo: Shai Reshef, founder of the University of the People

FLORIDA, December 18, 2012 — There can be little debate that the Internet has altered the landscape of our society. From shopping to dating and almost everything in-between, we rely on the World Wide Web with an increasing urgency.

Few sectorshave seen as much change in such a short amount of time as has college education. Only two decades ago, the notion of completing an entire post-secondary education from the comfort of home was anything but main stream.

Now, it is quickly becoming the norm. 

Few people understand the dynamics of for-profit education like Shai Reshef. He has worked in this field for decades, eventually becoming a remarkably successful entrepreneur. Almost four years ago, he launched a most unusual type of school. Aside from being non-profit, it charges no tuition.

Fittingly, it is called the University of the People.

Learning online

Its surprising premise has attracted media attention the world over, and this column is no exception. In this first part of a candid discussion, Reshef explains why online education has become so popular, whether or not it will eventually render brick-and-mortar institutions obsolete, how large the problem of skyrocketing tuition rates is, and much more.  

Joseph F. Cotto: Online education is a concept that most of us are familiar with. Why do you believe that it has become so popular in recent years?

Shai Reshef: Today, millions around the world are constrained from access to higher education due to financial, geographic, societal, or personal constraints. UNESCO’s youth growth projections suggest that by the year 2025, another 98 million individuals will be in need of higher educational access than what existing institutions can accommodate. Online learning is an excellent way to be able to reach this incredible and growing demand for higher education, not just on an individual level, but to also make the world a better, more educated setting for all.

Furthermore, online provides a quality education. A 2010 Meta-Analysis performed by the U.S. Department of Education shows the effectiveness of online higher education. The millions of students who choose to study partially or fully online demonstrate its effectiveness as well. And the fact that Stanford, Harvard and MIT moved to offer some of their courses online is another testament to the quality of online studying.

Additionally, online education allows for flexibility that physical institutions cannot provide – a fact that is perhaps one of the most influential driving forces in online education’s popularity.

What is unique to UoPeople within online education is that UoPeople is able to provide individualized attention to students online. UoPeople breaks up its courses into classrooms of 20-30 students to allow for direct instructor oversight and manageable peer-to-peer interactions that are highly conducive to learning. Furthermore, the fact that because we are online and globally accessible to all allows us to provide heightened access for diversity. In each of our classrooms, our 20-30 students most often hail from 20-30 different countries, thus allowing for global dialogue on an unprecedented scale.

Cotto: Some people believe that online colleges will eventually render mortar bricks-and-mortar institutions obsolete. Do you share this opinion?

Traditional brick and mortar college

Reshef: The demand for higher education is so immense that I don’t think online will ever render brick-and-mortar institutions obsolete. Many brick-and-mortar institutions serve as valuable research institutions, providing numerous societal benefits. For many segments of society, brick and mortar are excellent solutions and will continue to serve the populations they serve. However, because of the demand for higher education, traditional brick and mortar can’t service all those in need.

There are millions left out. For them, online colleges are excellent to reach those who cannot re-locate to attend a physical university, cannot afford the tuition rates or find societal restrictions inhibit their ability to attend a physical university.

Online colleges and brick-and-mortar institutions actually work together quite nicely. In UoPeople’s case, UoPeople has been fortunate to attain the support of many individuals in traditional higher education, as well as our partnerships with Yale-ISP and NYU. New York University, for example, a traditional institution, views UoPeople as a vehicle to find bright individuals who otherwise may have been overlooked.

Our collaborations with traditional institutions help in furthering our mission of democratizing education. Before UoPeople, millions of people around the world could not fathom attending university. By working with other institutions, we are providing a truly unique global learning experience.

Cotto: One of the gravest concerns cited with modern post-secondary education is the rising cost of tuition. From your standpoint, how large of a problem is this? 

Reshef: This is an extraordinary problem. Globally, tuition-rates are skyrocketing, leading to an increase in the number of people unable to afford to attend university. If the problem of people being unable to attain education only increases exponentially, we will undoubtedly see the results on subsequent generations.

Cotto: An increasing number of people believe that, due to the tuition rates, college is no longer worth the money. What are your views about this idea? 

Reshef: First, we believe in education. We believe education should be a right for all and not a privilege for only a few. The more people educated, the better our world will be. Furthermore, for most countries in the world, there is a correlation between the level of education and income.

With that being said, the prices should be much lower. University of the People is continuously demonstrating the feasibility of lowering tuition (even more than lowering – to be tuition-free), and serving as a model for others to follow suit.

Cotto: Generally speaking, what sort of impact do you believe that for-profit colleges have had on the academic world?

Reshef: For profit colleges were built to cater to populations that traditional universities were either unable to accommodate or unwilling to. By being more flexible and building specialized programs, they were able to tap into new markets and dramatically increase the number of students in higher education.

For-profits were especially able to reach the working adults who were previously unable to attend universities because of the restrictive schedules of traditional universities. Between the for-profits and the traditional universities who followed suit, the doors to education were opened to many for whom previously those doors were shut.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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