University of the People University of the People Photo: Screenshot from a University of the People commercial.

Dream of a tuition-free, global university comes true

The University of the People partners with Harvard, MIT and others to educate some of the world's poorest.

What if everyone in the world could afford to go to college?

That dream is becoming a reality, thanks to the University of the People (UoPeople), a nonprofit, tuition-free institution that provides an undergraduate education to people worldwide.

In lieu of tuition, UoPeople asks for a small application fee and up to $100 for each exam. Poorer students are asked to pay even less, with grants and scholarships available to cover their costs.

How does UoPeople make this possible? Through mentoring-based partnerships with companies such as the Clinton Global Initiative, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, as well as access to open-source coursework from universities like Harvard and MIT. It also relies heavily on volunteer course developers and instructors.

Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef founded UoPeople in 2009. More than 700 students are currently enrolled, and Reshef expects that number to grow considerably in the coming years.

According to The New York Times, 17 students are on track to earn a bachelor’s degree within the next year. Another 31 will earn associate’s degrees. 

“We have students from almost every developing country in the world,” Reshef told Forbes.com. “We have students who survived the genocide in Rwanda, the earthquake in Haiti, tsunami in Thailand, and many more. For most of our students, we are the alternative to no alternative,” he said. UoPeople's students come from 142 countries.

shai_reshefUniversity of the People founder Shai Reshef. (Photo: Flickr/nrkbeta) 

“We want to make sure that no student is left out for financial reasons,” Reshef told The New York Times.

To enroll, students must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma and speak English. These requirements ensure the university's accreditation by the Distance Education and Training Council.

Students can choose business administration or computer science as degree tracks. The two were chosen for their international importance in building economies and broadening work opportunities in developing countries.

For those who are accepted, courses are composed of 10-week, text-based, online sessions. Online classrooms do not rely on bandwith-consuming videos or podcasts but rather on written text, emails and discussion boards. In places where Internet access is limited, students can download materials and read them offline.

UoPeople's corporate partnerships have developed into programs such as Microsoft’s UoPeople Microsoft4Afrika scholarship, which caters to students across Africa. And, in 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a $500,000 grant to the university that helped fund its accreditation.

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