Shai Reshef explains how he built world's first tuition-free university

In an era of skyrocketing tuition costs, Shai Reshef has done what many consider to be unbelievable with the University of the People. Photo: Many people, like this young man in Haiti, around the world attend UoPeople AP

FLORIDA, December 19, 2012 — The University of the People is surely one of the world’s most unique educational institutions. The nonprofit online school has made huge waves due to its lack of a tuition and focus on bringing education to those in impoverished communities.

What was it that inspired the University’s launch? How did it morph from a dream into a reality? Considering that no tuition is charged, how does the school sustain itself?

In this second part of our discussion, founder Shai Reshef answers these questions and more. He also tells us about how he became such a noted figure in the field of online education.  

Joseph F. Cotto: What inspired you to launch the University of the People? 

Shai Reshef: When I started the first online university outside the U.S. in the Netherlands (for-profit), I realized how powerful online learning could be. However, the problem was that deep inside I felt uncomfortable because most people couldn’t afford it. It was wishful thinking for many as it was too expensive. I ended up selling the University as well as the rest of my business, and I went into semi-retirement. When I did so, I realized retirement was not for me. I wanted to give back to the world and in order to do so, it must be through education. 

Cotto: In a summary sense, how did you turn the University from an idea into a reality?

Reshef addressing an audience at Yale AP

Reshef: I sincerely believe, and am driven by this belief, that when you educate one person, you can change a life; but when you educate many, you can change the world. I knew that with my educational experience I could do something through education that has the potential to make an impact. I also realized that the tools were already available to do it.

Much of what is needed to offer higher education is free: open source technology, open education resources and a new Internet culture of social networking where people share, teach and learn from each other. All I had to do was bring it all together. So I founded the University of the People to offer tuition-free online degree programs in order to democratize higher education for the world. 

Cotto: Considering that the University is tuition-free, how does it manage to sustain itself?

Reshef: University of the People was created to take advantage of growing trends in education and combine them in a unique and sustainable model capable of delivering quality education to many around the world.

In essence, UoPeople is able to effectively function on a limited budget without sacrificing the quality of education. By embracing collaborative learning, utilizing open educational resources and open source technology, as well as the assistance of our approximately 3,000 volunteers, the University of the People makes the best use of a student body from around the world while limiting operating costs.

In doing so, we are building a scalable model that can be duplicated by governments and universities to show that delivering quality education to masses need not be so expensive.

However, there is an important distinction to make here. While UoPeople is tuition-free, we are not entirely free. With our tuition-free model, there is no charge for the cost of instruction, books, teachers or annual enrollment as is customarily charged in higher education.

UoPeople logo AP

In order to remain sustainable, there is a nominal one-time application processing fee ($50) and subsequent examination processing fees ($100) charged for each end-of-course exam.

For those who cannot afford even these nominal fees, UoPeople offers scholarships in order to remain consistent with our mission and ensure that no qualified student is left out for financial reasons. 

Cotto: How does the curriculum of the University differ from other online post-secondary institutions? 

Reshef: We rely heavily on open source resources for our students, so our students are not charged anything to access reading or learning materials. Our courses are designed by qualified course developers. Each course has different learning outcomes and objectives. They contain varying components to meet these outcomes and objectives such as assignments, quizzes and the final exam.

As far as the designing of the overall curriculum, the curriculums of UoPeople’s Business Administration and Computer Science programs are comparable to most online higher education institutions. We consistently monitor and gauge the quality of these courses.

Time and time again, UoPeople receives great feedback from our students on the quality of their education received. For example, of the students polled consecutively each term, over 95% of UoPeople students would recommend UoPeople to a peer as a good place to attend. 

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how it was that you came to be such a noted figure in the field of online education. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Reshef: As an educational entrepreneur, I have 20 years of experience in the international education market, including having served as Chairman of the Kidum Group, a for-profit educational services company, and chaired KIT eLearning, the online learning partner of the University of Liverpool and the first online university outside of the United States.

When I founded UoPeople, naturally, I began talking about the University to everyone I could. The idea quickly spread. I was invited, on behalf of UoPeople, to talk about the University at the Clinton Global Initiative; DLD; TedxKC; TEDxOxbridge; WEF; EG; Google’s Higher Education Summit; Economist’s Summit; the NY Times Schools for Tomorrow Event; Yale; Harvard; Stanford; and Oxford. 

Additionally, because of the concept of UoPeople and the work I have done with the University, I have had the immense honors of being named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business; joining UN-GAID as a High-level Adviser; selected by the Huffington Post readership as the Ultimate Game Changer in Education; nominated as one of Wired Magazine’s “50 People Changing the World;” and chosen as Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. I hold a M.A. in Chinese Politics from the University of Michigan.

With University of the People, I have never worked harder or been happier in my life. I am incredibly fulfilled, and honored, to be dedicating myself to changing the accessibility of higher education for everyone on Earth.


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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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